Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Five Things about the St Lawrence String Quartet

I caught the Penn State performance of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (pictured below left) with soprano Heidi Grant Murphy (seen right) and pianist Kevin Murphy (below right) last night in State College.

1. The program was re-arranged, and as violinist Geoff Nuttall explained on the second half - despite their manager's insistance - that "the best was saved for last", even though it was the "modern piece." Nuttall said his dad used to complain in Canada that he'd go to concerts and have to sit through the modern piece before he could get to the romantic stuff.
In this case, it was the world premiere of Roberto Sierra's Songs of the Diaspora (Sierra pictured very bottom left). Geoff also joked (with the help of an usher?) that the doors were barred, and a clunk was heard! No one left after the announcement either.
So the line up was Chausson, Shostakovich, intermission, Debussy and Sierra. (Originally and printed in the program were the Shostakovich, Chausson, Sierra, Debussy.)

2. Ernest Chausson’s Chanson Perp├ętuelle, or Song without End, was a delightful way to begin the program, and in the capable hands of Heidi Grant Murphy, Kevin Murphy and the St. Lawrence Quartet (hereafter referred as SLSQ), you really didn't want the song to end. Especially charming was the ease of Murphy's voice changing from silky smooth melodic lines to nasal French inflections.

3. The SLSQ were like cartoon caricatures, in the best possible sense. In a way, they reminded me of the Guarneri Quartet circa 1980s: a virtuosic, flashy First Violinist, and steady and reliable Second Violinist, and mellow yet astounding Violist, and a energetic and well grounded Cellist.
Really the lineup for the SLSQ is just right, they ineract superbly and with the same musical and physical motion. Their Shostakovich Third Quartet, out on EMI Classics with the 7th and 8th Quartets, is dead on. And live, it was superb.

4. After intermission, I was thoughly disappointed by the Debussy performance. It wasn't that the flippant and carefree reading wasn't without excitement or depth. At times, it was breathtaking and gorgeous, but too many times the tempos were overdone, ridiculously slow and predictable accelerations - which could have been effective if it were annoying and for no apparent musical reason. There were also some humorous missed notes, such as glissandi that never made it to the actual note. I should say it was all done in the SLSQ character and with a good unison ensemble approach. It just wasn't enjoyable for myself. Ol' Claude might have done a little spinning himself in the grave along with me in my seat.

5. Roberto Sierra's Songs of the Diaspora was the reason I was at this concert, and I wasn't disappointed. Again, Murphy & Murphy joined the SLSQ for perhaps what was the biggest workout of the night. Sure, there were some ensemble issues (Scott St. John taking the 1st Violinist spot wasn't together with Violist Lesley Robertson on the opening Ocean/Klezmerish run - although when it returned, they were spot on) but overall it was a dynamic and interesting piece. The mostly lyric and traditional songs are of a moderate tempo and let each member make some music - lots of harmonics, pizzicati and wonderful interaction for the quartet and piano.
Of the seven, two are at a faster tempo: the fourth, "My mother-in-law, the evil one" and the final "The siren" are engaging and dramatic. They help shape the cycle from the idyllic trance Sierra weaves. Besides the rhythmic uniformity, I thought there might have been more ensemble variety, but then again, if you're writing for a piano quintet and soprano, why NOT have them busy all the time?
While the director of the arts center mentioned to be quiet while following the texts (they had an insert of all the songs with translations) the performers still had to wait for all of the noise to stop as the audience turned pages quite loudly (at least it wasn't typically during the music, but between movements!)
All-in-all, the Songs are well crafted and suit the strengths of the ensemble in an imaginative way.

The Songs of the Diaspora will be played across the country by these artists, catch it if you can!

Afterthought, or Post-Script: I hate mentioning what the performer wore, but yes, Heidi made a wardrobe change (no manfunctions, hahaha) - from a gorgeous springlike ensemble for the Chausson to a elegant black outfit for the Sierra.
You can read another account of this evening here.

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