The St. Lawrence String Quartet, with Clarinetist Todd Palmer

St. Lawrence String Quartet – What a Way to Open a Season!

The most substantial work on the program the St. Lawrence String Quartet performed last night at Sunset Center for Chamber Music Monterey Bay was “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” composed in 1994 by Osvaldo Golijov. This 33-minute work in five movements featured guest clarinetist Todd Palmer, who came out on stage after intermission like a tennis player at Wimbledon, but instead of four tennis racquets under his arm, he was carrying four clarinets  — from bass to piccolo. From these instruments we subsequently heard every sound possible (and some nearly impossible) that these instruments can produce. This is not to imply that it was only novelty that was driving the performance, for this work by Golijov has serious substance and infectious charm as it explored elements of rabbinical prayer music as well as generous amounts of traditional Yiddish and klezmer styles.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet, consisting of violinists Geoff Nuttall and Owen Dalby, violist Lesley Robertson, cellist Christopher Costanza, is a resident quartet at Stanford University well known for its championing new music, so it was no surprise that their collaboration with Todd Palmer in the work by Golijov produced a performance of unusual intensity. It was an amazing display of energy and a perfect blending of strings and clarinet. We heard from Todd Palmer clarinet playing such as I have never heard before — bold, brilliant, clamorous, seductive, sometimes screeching, sometimes ghostly, but always commanding our attention and involvement. The playing by the strings was every bit original and powerful as the writing for clarinet and the players of the quaartet impressed us with their versatility and mastery.

The program began with Haydn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 33, No. 2. Highlighting Haydn’s usual wit, charm and absolute mastery of the genre, the players of the St. Lawrence String Quartet exploited every delicious twist and turn in the first movement, found elements of opera buffa in the lighthearted Scherzo, kept us involved in the spiritually emotional Adagio, and blew us away in the infectious, bubbling finale movement — especially effective were the witty final moments in the coda featuring the players unexpectedly stopping and starting, which totally captured our attention. You are unlikely to hear Haydn quartet playing any better than this.

After the lightheaded fun of the Haydn Quartet, the next work on the program, Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2, composed fifty years later was like entering a time warp into a different era. We were hearing Mendelssohn the Romantic involving us in longer, more personal, almost melancholy, melodic lines and always exhibiting his refined craftsmanship. Especially memorable were the lovely Scherzo, with its frenetic moto perpetuo, the weaving of magic in the lyrical Andante, and the passionate and fiery finale I may have lost ctoberount, but I believe this is the third of fourth time the St. Lawrence String Quartet have performed for Chamber Music Monterey Bay, but they will always be welcome guests on the Monterey Peninsula. 2016 represents Chamber Music Monterey Bay’s 50th anniversary season. What a way to open a new season!

Peninsula Reviews – Lyn Bronson, editor
by Lyn Bronson
October 16, 2016