Folks convinced that they hate chamber music should spend a couple hours with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The conversion rate would surely be high.
This group, which opened the 46th season of the Shriver Hall Concert Series Sunday evening, backs up impressive technical skills with a level of infectious enthusiasm, not to mention an ability to communicate.
In violinist Geoff Nuttall, the ensemble has an unusually effective spokesperson. It's no wonder that he recently succeeded the affable Charles Wadsworth as chamber music director at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, SC.
Wadsworth earned famed for his folksy, droll introductions at concerts. Nuttall can also deliver aural program notes in an animated, amusing style, as he did throughout Sunday's concert (maybe a little too often).
In addition to knowing how to coax an audience into listening harder, he can even get them to ...
talk louder during the music. Yes, talk.
To illustrate a point, Nuttall asked the Shriver Hall crowd to chatter away -- "Don't be polite" -- as the ensemble sat down to play Haydn's C major Quartet, Op. 74, No. 1. The composer, Nuttall said, began the score with two bold chords meant to stop the din that, in pre-concert-etiquette days, would have been going on at the work's premiere.
Whatever the musicological grounds might be for that risky shtick, it made an amusing start to the program. But it was the playing that really paid off, especially the rich nuances the musicians produced in the trio section of the minuet and the bravura they sustained in the finale.
Nuttall, playing first violin, sometimes sacrificed purity of tone, but the great character in every phrase proved worth it. Violinist Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza matched that character and offered exemplary articulation as well.
Two plaintive, darkly beautiful pieces by Osvaldo Golijov found a worthy champion in the ensemble. "Tenebrae," with its mix of trembling, melancholy and echoes of Couperin, cast quite a spell. So did "Kohelet," freshly written for these musicians. St. John, now in the first violin chair, phrased the long-held notes of the primary melodic line exquisitely.
Dvorak's G major Quartet, Op. 106, received a taut, unabashedly openhearted performance. The playing had a gripping intensity, not just in the most passionate outbursts, but in many inner details, such as the second violin's edgy pizzicato notes amid the slow movement, delivered by Nuttall with almost demonic force.
PHOTO (by Marco Borggreve ) COURTESY OF SLSQ.COM