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Lesley Robertson, Owen Dalby, Chris Costanza and Geoff Nuttall

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON January 27th 2017

Toronto Concert Reviews in Toronto

It was not surprising that last night’s audience at St. Lawrence Centre’s Jane Mallet Theatre was one of the largest for Music Toronto this season. The St. Lawrence String Quartet has grown its audience over its many years of performances in the Chamber Music Downtown series.  Since the quartet's inception in Toronto in 1989 and its first concert for Music Toronto in 1991, the young band of irreverent and radical musicians from Canada was determined to make a mark in the world of string quartets and so they have. After winning acclaim at top international chamber music competitions, the quartet was soon earning prize winning recordings for EMI, Grammy nominations, and since 1998 a residency at Stanford University. 

With two of its founding members, first violinist Geoff Nutall and violist Lesley Robertson still in the quartet along with cellist Chris Costanza and newest member Owen Dalby, the quartet has maintained its level of excellence and continues to thrive on making a connection with the audience. In the 2016-17 season, it has already travelled to Italy, performed with the LA Philharmonic, and maintained an ambitious schedule of concerts throughout North America with a commitment to contemporary music as well as a devotion to the quartets of Haydn.

Last night, it was two of Haydn’s great Op. 20 quartets that bookended a concert packed with penetrating, emotional playing. From the beginning of Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat, Op.20, No.1 (Hob.III:31) there was a joyful intensity in the music. As animated as the music, each of the performers displayed their powerful concentration and communication in body language. They rose out of their chairs in unison to find the precision of a strong chord. Nutall, it seemed, conducted with his feet at times, raising one or the other into the air. There was no fear of a bold approach to Haydn’s music; and it worked. The hymn-like third movement had a depth of soulful discovery and the finale was a sparkling and animated conversation or argument that had all the excitement of a divisive political debate.

Leoš Janáček’s Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”, is a work that was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella of the same name and illuminates the tragedy in a story of a woman murdered by a jealous and domineering husband. In a preamble that reminded one of a vivacious teacher with wit, enthusiasm and good information to share, Nutall spoke to the audience; the quartet demonstrated key moments in the music. They made the music accessible to the many for whom it may have been new. The performance itself was as dramatic as one could have hoped for. From the pleading opening theme to the last gasps of the dying woman, it triggered all the emotions that one would expect in such a horrific story.

Following intermission, a contemporary five movement work by American composer Jonathan Berger, String Quartet No.6, “Swallow” took flight, carrying the audience into the sounds of bird calls and whistles. The music burst forth with all the sudden changes that one sees in swallows flying overhead either hunting insects or attempting to mate. The fourth movement shimmered with its harmonic tremolos hovering over the cello pizzicato and plaintive solo line. Was this the dying swallow? The fifth movement came back with new energy as if a new generation of swallows was ready to carry on life’s work.

The program concluded with a profoundly moving performance of Haydn’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No.5 (HobIII:35). This was Haydn with more than a hint of the romanticism still just over the horizon. Nutall was at his best as he played the increasingly ornamented descant in the third movement. In the fugal final movement each instrument bore its share of the heavy lifting giving the work an intensity that composers ever since have found in the genre making the string quartet the most intimate, profound and complex idiom of musical expression.

Next on the calendar for Music Toronto will be pianist Ilya Poletaev on Tuesday February 7th and on February 16th, the Eybler Quartet will perform. Both performances will take place at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in the Jane Mallet Theatre.

St. Lawrence String Quartet returns to Toronto with music spanning two and a half centuries in an enthralling performance!