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ST. LAWRENCE STRING QUARTET lights up opening night at Toronto Summer Music Festival

Geoff Nuttal, Owen Dalby, Christopher Costanza and Lesley Robertson
Photo credit: James Ireland

Review by David Richards
Toronto ON July 14th 2017

Christopher Costanza, Geoff Nuttal, Murray Schafer, Owen Dalby,  and Lesley Robertson
Photo credit: James Ireland

Following intermission, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C -sharp minor Op. 131, a monumental work that many have called his finest work, was brought to life with energy, wit and drama. From the sorrowful opening fugue to the Presto scherzo, this was a performance that had great emotional impact.

Artistic Director of TSMF Jonathan Crow has put together a festival that promises many more special performances by Canadian and International superstars, Academy Concerts by young musicians on the cusp of musical careers with their artist mentors, new Kids Concerts, Public Masterclasses, Art of Song performances and Shuffle Concerts. There will be no more musical withdrawal symptoms between now and the festival conclusion on August 5th. 

Murray Schafer; Photo credit: James Ireland

I had been beginning to suffer withdrawal symptoms with the void in live music in Toronto since the end of the 2016/17 season for the city’s musical organizations. The withdrawal came to an abrupt halt last night with the spectacular performance by the St. Lawrence String Quartet at Koerner Hall marking the beginning of the Toronto Summer Music Festival, and for that matter the beginning of the summer music festival season in Ontario.

The concert could have been a formal and regal affair with Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, Her Honour the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell and the foremost Canadian composer of the past 60 years, R. Murray Schafer both in attendance. However, audience and performers alike had other ideas. One couldn’t help but notice the enthusiasm of the arriving audience in the glass-walled atrium lobby. And instead of settling into a serious quartet, the audience joined in singing Happy Birthday to Murray Shafer who turns 84 this week.

The St. Lawrence Quartet brought all of its energy and life to the program. First violinist Geoff Nuttall , in his contemporary blue suit and multi-coloured striped socks, was often out of his chair to emphasize dramatic moments in the music. Through animated facial expressions and exaggerated movements, the members of the quartet communicated clearly to each other and to the audience. The quartet, with roots in Toronto and since 1999 the resident quartet at Stanford University, is no ordinary quartet. It combines exceptional artistry and intensity to reach out to the audience as few quartets can.  

The opening work, Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet No. 25 in C major, Op. 20, No. 2 (Hob.III:32) gave each instrument an equal voice as the melodic line passed from instrument to instrument. The final movement, a fugue, was especially engaging.

Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 3 lifted the concert to a singularly auspicious occasion. Schafer’s works are always full of ingenious inventiveness and this string quartet is no exception. The first movement began with a passionate recitative-like solo by cellist Christopher Costanza. Eventually violist Leslie Robertson joined from off-stage and the two violinists, Nuttall and Owen Dalby entered separately from either side of the back of the hall. In the second movement, all kinds of, guttural vocal sounds added to the infections upbeat rhythmic drive giving an athletic energy to the work. The calm of the final movement with its in and out of tune unisons left an uneasy feeling as the first violin left the stage repeating a three-note phrase ever quieter until inaudible. An obviously thrilled Schafer felt the enthusiastic appreciation of the audience and performers for not only this work, but for his lifetime gift of new music to the world.