St. Lawrence String Quartet

By Scott MacClelland

Last Friday, composer George Tsontakis (pictured) was in Carmel to talk about and hear the premiere of his Seventh String Quartet, a Chamber Music Monterey Bay commission that included soprano solo in three 19th century contemporary texts on death. The 28-minute piece, played by the St. Lawrence Quartet (in their third CMMB appearance) and featuring Jessica Rivera, is precisely, even exquisitely written. This does not mean it makes for easy listener acclimation. String textures are mostly spare, the instruments often disconnected from one another, and highly transparent. Yet sometimes they come tsontakistogether for forceful harmonic expletives.

Tsontakis is by birth and musical orientation a New Yorker, moving up and down the Hudson, and elsewhere, to a variety of academic posts, and a much recorded and awarded artist. He studied at the Juilliard School in the min-1970s with Roger Sessions. His music has been performed and broadcast throughout the Americas, in Europe and Japan. (This concert is slated for broadcast by KUSP 88.9FM on May 16, 8pm.) In 2008, his Second Violin Concerto was nominated for a Grammy, outgunned only by John Corigliano’s Mr. Tambourine Man, Seven Poems of Bob Dylan. He was a composer-in-residence at the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporay Music in 2011.

Herman Melville’s Shiloh: A Requiem (1862) opened the work, its musical material extended from a four-minute ‘prelude’ to the grim text which itself moved and soared independently from the string textures. Viola and cello established an insistent bass line while the top strings were given the freedom of swallows as referenced by the text. Certain recurring mottos provided occasional landmarks. The brief second movement, Dead in the Cold, by Christian Rossetti, (from Sing Song a nursery rhyme book) was a sort-of updated Ring Around the Rosy, but with phrases from the texts extended repetitiously, that became a danse macabre, complete with eerie string glissandos, as it mourns the now-silenced thrush.

The seven verses of Come Lovely and Soothing Death, from Walt Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed, invited punctuating mottos, not least an insistent repetition on one note on the principal violin. Twitters and string surges, animated dotted rhythms and pizzicatos at the end tracked the texts which, fortunately, provided the perfect roadmap for the music itself, thanks to houselights raised sufficiently to make them readable in the darkened hall.

As fine a performance as was Rivera, I felt the work shorted her expressive gifts by excessively angular ‘instrumental’ writing.

The St. Lawrence opened their program with Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat, the first of the Op20 set of six, written in 1772. Not only does this work (along with its fellows) encapsulate the full complement of the composer’s brilliant originality of design, wit and disguise, but the St. Lawrence players put on a dazzling show of fresh discovery and cheeky surprise. Many of their sudden ritards and startling phrasings were laugh-out-loud. The concert ended with Antonín Dvořák’s Quartet in C, Op61. Composed in haste in 1881, just after the Sixth Symphony, and midway between the two sets of Slavonic Dances, this work hews more toward the sophisticated Brahmsian example than the folkloric. It’s rarely played, relatively speaking. (I don’t think I ever heard it live before.) Yet folklore does show up in the dancing scherzo third movement and as a brief nostalgic violin solo in the finale. The reading inspired cheers.