Program Notes
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Saturday, November 6, 2004

About the Artists

            Geoff Nuttall, violin
            Barry Shiffman, violin
            Lesley Robertson, viola
            Christopher Costanza, cello

Since its genesis in Toronto in 1989, the St. Lawrence String Quartet has delighted audiences across Europe, Asia, North America, and South America, establishing itself as one of the world-class ensembles of its generation.  During the early 1990s, the St. Lawrence won the Banff International String Quartet Competition and the Young Concert Artists Auditions.  The ensemble’s debut CD, released in 1999, received both Germany’s Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik and Canada’s Juno Award.  For ten years, the ensemble has been the Resident Quartet to the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, and has been Ensemble-in-Residence at Stanford University since 1998.  The St. Lawrence String Quartet can be found on the Web at http://slsq.com.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet appears by arrangement with David Rowe Artists, Marblehead, Masschusetts.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet records exclusively for EMI/Angel.


Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Quartet in E-flat major, op. 33, no. 2 (H. III:38) ("The Joke") (composed 1781)

Nearly a decade passed between Haydn's epochal "Sun" Quartets, op. 20 (1772) and the quartets of Opus 33, written (as he put it) "in an entirely new and special way."  Just what constituted this "new and special way" has been a topic of contention ever since.  Some commentators point to their lighter character, manifested in Haydn's first use of the scherzo instead of the minuet (hence one of the nicknames for this set, "Gli Scherzi").  Others see these six pieces as a watershed in the history of both the classical style and the string quartet due to the new textures and developmental techniques Haydn uses.  More cynical observers suggest that Haydn was indulging in advertising hyperbole, the 18th-century equivalent of "new and improved."

In any case, Opus 33 has accumulated its share of collective sobriquets.  The lightness of the set bestowed both the forward-looking name "Gli Scherzi" and the nostalgic "Divertimenti."  Their dedication to Grand Duke Paul of Russia got them called the "Russian" Quartets.  And the moniker "Jungfernquartette" ("maiden" or "virgin" quartets) honors the image of a young woman found on the 1782 edition's title page.

The “Quartet in E-flat major, op. 33, no. 2” has its own title, "The Joke."  Perhaps the joke is on anyone trying to find Haydn's "new and special way" in this work that remains fairly conventional until the end.  The sonata-form opening (“Allegro moderato, cantabile”) is followed by a scherzo distinguished from most earlier minuets only by a somewhat lighter texture and a slightly quicker tempo.  The slow movement (“Largo e sostenuto”) harkens back to Haydn's baryton trios for its structure and glances ahead toward his “Quartets op. 76” of 1797-1798 for some of its effects.  It is the coda of the rondo “Finale” that earns the “Joke Quartet” its name.  Following a gloomy adagio episode, the main theme sounds again with rests between each two-bar phrase, then yet again with rests twice as long.  The result is among Haydn's oddest endings, calculated to keep audiences off balance and amused.

Haydn scholar H.C. Robbins Landon attributes some of the humor of Opus 33 to the composer's state of mind.  By 1781, "Papa" Haydn was likely absorbed in the early days of an affair with the young mezzo-soprano Luigia Polzelli, wife of an infirm Esterháza violinist.  As she was muse to his growing maturity, Haydn gave her parts in his operas and transposed to her voice range arias in other productions of the court.  Rumor has it that he was also "Papa" to one of her sons.

Osvaldo Golijov (born 1960)

Yiddishbbuk (composed 1992)

Born in La Plata, Argentina, to a family of Eastern European Jewish heritage, Osvaldo Golijov studied composition and piano before moving to Israel in 1983.  In 1986, he came to the United States, studying with George Crumb and earning his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania.  Since 1991, Mr. Golijov has taught at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, and also serves on the faculties of the Boston Conservatory and at the Tanglewood Music Center.

About “Yiddishbbuk” and his relationship with the St. Lawrence, Mr. Golijov has written:

“A broken song played on a shattered cymbalon.” Thus, writes Kafka, begins “Yiddishbbuk,” a collection of apocryphal psalms which he read while living in Prague's Street of the Alchemists.  The only remnants of the collection are a few verses interspersed among the entries of Kafka's notebooks, and the last lines are also quoted in a letter to Milena:  “No one sings as purely as those who are in the deepest hell. Theirs is the song which we confused with that of the angels.” Written in Hebrew characters and surrounded with musical notation, marks similar to those of the genuine texts, the psalms' only other reference to their music is “In the mode of the Babylonic Lamentations.”

Based on these vestiges, these inscriptions for string quartet are an attempt to reconstruct that music.  The movements of the piece bear the initials of the five people commemorated in the work.  The first movement remembers three children interned by the Nazis at the Terezín concentration camp:  Doris Weiserová (1932-1944), Frantisek Bass (1930-1944), and Tomás Kauders (1934-1943).  Their poems and drawings appear in the book “I never saw another butterfly,” published by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  The second movement bears the initials of the writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), and the last movement the initials of Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990).

Osvaldo Golijov and the St. Lawrence String Quartet

If it's true, as Borges said, that in every man's life there is a moment that defines his existence, then meeting the St Lawrence String Quartet was that moment for me.  In truth, I had experienced other defining musical moments up to that one:  as a child listening to my mother practice Bach, and being struck by the mystery of simultaneous lines, each complete and beautiful in its own right, making perfect sense together; seeing Piazzolla play in La Plata when I was ten, and being unable to sleep that night; listening for the first time to a recording of “The Firebird” and then, as a teenager, to Mahler's “Second Symphony.”  Years later, freshly arrived in the United States from Jerusalem, I was shaken by the Kronos Quartet playing Reich's “Different Trains.” And of course there had been “life” moments too, some of them beautiful, some tragic, some sad.  But life and music converged like never before when I met this quartet in Tanglewood in the summer of 1992.

I had written “Yiddishbbuk” for the St Lawrence without knowing who they were, trusting to the excitement that Gilbert Kalish and Richard Ortner felt for them.  I was, as usual, late with the piece and came to the first rehearsal, two weeks before the premiere, with only the first movement written.  Before playing a single note they told me in so many words that they could make no sense of it.  I was completely taken aback by their open mistrust, but ready to fight.  Barry challenged me to sing it:  I sang for a minute and they all said, “OK, now we get it.”  They grabbed their instruments and played that first movement.  It felt like lightning.  For the first time in my life I was listening to what I had written being played as vividly as I heard it in my head.  I was frozen, speechless, and heard Geoff ask, “Ozzie, when will you bring the rest of the piece?.”  (“Ozzie?”  I just met this guy ten minutes ago, he said he didn't know what to make of my music and now I'm “Ozzie”?)  In the event, I wrote the rest of it and then some more.  There was no further need to sing:  Now we were able to work by telepathy.  At the premiere they came on stage like hungry cannibals and I felt a strange sense of tranquillity.

A decade after that first summer I feel our journey of friendship and music to be one of the greatest gifts in my life.  They are now part of my family.  In fact, they have a knack for creating family wherever they go:  They play music completely open, without a skin layer to protect them, and they also live their lives like that.  They “Ozzify” anyone they meet in a matter of seconds, and whenever I am with them I feel that life is just beautiful.

Written under a 1990 Fromm Commission from Tanglewood, “Yiddishbbuk” premiered there in 1992, and was awarded the first prize in the Kennedy Center’s Friedheim Awards in 1993.


Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)

Quartet no. 1 in D major, op. 11 (composed 1871)

The name Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky does not usually come to mind in the context of chamber music.  Only a relative handful of works constitute his contribution to the genre:   his three string quartets opera 11, 22, and 30; his piano trio, op. 50; and his string sextet, op. 70, to name the most prominent.  Yet his claim as one of the pioneers, along with Alexander Borodin, in the development of the Russian chamber music tradition cannot be disputed.  His quartets in particular, which incorporate nationalist qualities but are not mere embellishments of existing folk music, are often heard as harbingers of the style so magnificently realized by Dmitri Shostakovich in the twentieth century.

Tchaikovsky’s “Quartet no. 1 in D major, op. 11” was written out of economic necessity at the urging of his friend and mentor, the conductor Nicholas Rubinstein.  In early 1871, the two were trying to organize a concert of Tchaikovsky’s works in Moscow, but could not afford to employ a full orchestra.  Having only a few small-scale works at his disposal, including several piano pieces and a set of six songs, Tchaikovsky devoted most of February 1871 to the “Quartet op. 11.”  Although hurriedly written, it became one of his greatest successes.  The “Andante cantabile,” in particular, has had an active life of its own in several alternative transcriptions.  In his diary, Tchaikovsky expressed pride that, while sitting next to the great writer at a performance of the movement, Leo Tolstoy wept.

Fanciful and spacious, the “Moderato e semplice” is followed by the aforementioned “Andante cantabile.”  Its first theme is based on a folk song that Tchaikovsky had heard several years earlier in Ukraine and had already included in a collection of folksongs he had arranged for piano duet; the second theme is the composer’s own.  Especially noteworthy is the central passage where the first violin plays the folk melody over descending chromatic pizzicati in the cello.  The rhythmically furious scherzo, marked “Allegro non tanto e con fuoco,” recalls Schumann to some ears.  The “Allegro giusto” finale exhibits the gusto of a Russian dance.

Program notes by Jay Weitz, Consulting Database Specialist for music, OCLC Online Computer Library Center, Dublin, Ohio.  He is a contributing performing arts critic for the weekly alternative newspaper Alive:  Music, Art, and Culture in Columbus (http://www.columbusalive.com).

| Back to Top | Back to Programs | Home |