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Behind the Scenes: St. Lawrence String Quartet

On Sunday, January 14, 2018, the St. Lawrence String Quartet performs all six of Haydn’s Op. 20 string quartets in a special immersive concert. We set down with members of the quartet to chat about what makes these quartets special and what concertgoers can look forward to at this performance.

The SLSQ perform in the Haydn Mega-Concert on January 14, 2018.

Audience on stage during St. Lawrence String Quartet

Audience members gather on stage during intermission at last week’s St. Lawrence String Quartet performance to get a glimpse at the R. Murray Schafer parts. Photo tweet by UMS’s Mark Jacobson.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet presents Haydn, Golijov, and Schafer

Author’s note: This article was written in November 2011 in anticipation of the St. Lawrence Quartet’s originally scheduled performance in Ann Arbor. Since then, composer Osvaldo Golijov has been entangled in a controversy over his extensive use of another composer’s music in his orchestra piece Sidereus. I wrote about the imbroglio on, but the most recent reporting on it is from the Philadelphia Inquirer.

 Kohelet, the Golijov work programmed on Thursday’s concert, is also entangled in the borrowing scandal. Earlier this winter, a Brazilian journalist identified and confronted Golijov about his borrowing of a pop song in the string quartet. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Golijov has replaced that part of Kohelet since its November performance in Philadelphia, which, ostensibly, would have been the version of the piece performed in Ann Arbor last November.

With that said, please proceed to read my thoughts on Thursday’s program. What has happened to Golijov since November is exciting, but, truthfully, doesn’t have much to do with the St. Lawrence Quartet – simply, the situation adds a little more spice to what is sure to be a thrilling concert Thursday evening.

– GS 

Photo: St. Lawrence String Quartet. Photo by Marco Borggreve.

The St. Lawrence Quartet’s trip to Ann Arbor has been highly anticipated since its announcement because of the group’s collaboration with renowned Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov. The recipient of some of the most prestigious awards offered to composers, Golijov’s music is among the most widely beloved in the world of contemporary music because of its unabashed reference to the composer’s unique upbringing. The child of exiled Romanian-Jewish parents, Golijov was raised in Argentina at a time when that country’s musical idea was taking shape, engendering his output with a broad base of cultural allusions spanning Eastern European Klezmer to the Tango music of Astor Piazzolla. Yet, in an intriguing twist of fate, the Golijov work we will hear on November 12 may not be the finished product of the St. Lawrence Quartet’s commission. As least as of October 24, Golijov’s piece had not been finished, described by the composer as “embryonic.”

The available criticisms of the composer’s alacrity notwithstanding, the unusual circumstances of the St. Lawrence Quartet’s upcoming performance provide you, the listeners, with an opportunity seldom offered to audiences of classical music: you get to hear a piece that is still alive. As a composer, I often stress to the performers I work with that the score is not etched in stone. In other words, every piece evolves as composers and ensembles collaborate, but the audience rarely gets to participate in that growth because the standard repertoire typically programmed on classical concerts is totally intransigent and has been for centuries. Although I cannot speculate more specifically as to how Golijov’s work – titled Kohelet – will sound, it is more than likely the St. Lawrence Quartet’s performance will be the only of its kind, ever. How often are concertgoers given a chance to hear something no other audience will experience?

Though the Golijov deadline controversy is the juiciest storyline related to the evening’s music, I imagine R. Murray Schafer’s String Quartet No. 3 will be the most memorable piece to most of the audience. Schafer is a well-known, successful Canadian composer who is experienced writing for string quartet and String Quartet No. 3 may be his best effort in the genre. The work is poignantly, aggressively expressive thanks to Schafer’s masterful use of the ensemble’s color. In fact, much of piece’s beginning exploits the homogenous sound of the quartet, delicately shading unison lines that moan with microtonal inflections and tightly bunched dissonances. Schafer is wise because he lets his material breath before developing it, which makes his abstract musical language easy to engage with if you’re an attentive listener. The second movement is extraordinarily divergent from the first with its high energy and pervasive vocalizations in the string parts. That’s right, we will all hear the members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet hum, growl and make other vocal sounds as they play. Most satisfactory is how Schafer uses these unusual effects to add to the string parts, compellingly decorating the frenetic quartet writing instead of throwing the vocalizing into the fray as some kind of gimmick. Keep the first in second movements in your mind as you listen to the third because the way Schafer coalesces the contrasts of the preceding sound worlds is extraordinary.

Of course, book-ending these modern compositions are two string quartets by Joseph Haydn, one of the most prolific composers of the Classical Era. Both works are extremely traditional and should pair nicely with Golijov’s Kohelet and Schafer’s String Quartet No. 3 insofar as the full breadth of the genre will certainly be on display. The first Haydn work is the String Quartet no. 57 in C Major, which has four delightful movements – in whole, an ideal aperitif to an evening of string quartet music. My favorite moment comes in the second movement, labeled “Andantino”, where Haydn, after briefly setting the stage introduces a stunningly delicate theme memorable to me both for its pithiness and characteristic octave doubling. Closing the concert is the String Quartet no. 61 in D minor, with its brooding opening movement that contrasts so starkly with the humorous pizzicato that accompanies the first theme of the second movement. The work’s finale opens rather nervously, regaining the angst of the opening movement and instilling it with more energy until, suddenly, the mode shifts and things brighten into the comfortable, pleasant closing bars of the piece.

11/12 Chamber Arts Series

The 49th Annual Chamber Arts Series presents seven of today’s leading chamber groups performing both traditional and contemporary repertoire.

All performances take place at Rackham Auditorium.

Subscription packages go on sale to the general public on Monday, May 9, and will be available through Friday, September 17. Current subscribers will receive renewal packets in early May and may renew their series upon receipt of the packet. Tickets to individual events will go on sale to the general public on Monday, August 22 (via and Wednesday, August 24 (in person and by phone). Not sure if you’re on our mailing list? Click here to update your mailing address to be sure you’ll receive a brochure.

Emerson String Quartet
Sunday, September 18, 4pm

Formed in the bicentennial year of the United States, the Emerson String Quartet took its name from the great American poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. This return appearance features the quartet in an all-Mozart program, including his three quartets commissioned by the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II.

The Late Quartets:  “King of Prussia”

Mozart | Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575 (1789)
Mozart | Quartet No. 22 in B-flat Major, K. 589 (1790)
Mozart | Adagio and Fugue in c minor, K. 546 (1788)
Mozart | Quartet No. 23 in F Major, K. 590 (1790)

St. Lawrence String Quartet
Saturday, November 12,  8pm

One of the great finds of the 09/10 season was the St. Lawrence String Quartet, which made its UMS debut during its 20th season in a stellar program of Haydn, Ravel, and John Adams. The SLSQ appears twice with UMS in the 11/12 season; they also perform a new work by John Adams with the San Francisco Symphony as part of the Choral Union Series in March.

Haydn | Quartet No. 57 in C Major, Op. 74, No. 1 (1793)
R.M. Schafer | Quartet No. 3 (1981)
Golijov | New Work (composed for SLSQ) (2011)
Haydn | Quartet No. 61 in d minor, Op. 76, No. 2 (“Quinten”) (1796-97)

Les Violons du Roy
Bernard Labadie, conductor
Maurice Steger, recorder

Saturday, January 28,  8pm

The chamber orchestra Les Violons du Roy borrows its name from the renowned string orchestra of the court of the French kings. Based in Québec City, the group has a core membership of 15 players who were brought together in 1984 for music director Bernard Labadie. They specialize in the vast repertoire of music for chamber orchestra, performed in the stylistic manner most appropriate to each era.

W.F. Bach | Overture in g minor (originally attributed to J.S. Bach, BWV 1070)
Telemann | Concerto for Recorder in C Major, TWV 51:C1
Scarlatti | Concerto Grosso in Seven Parts, No. 3 in F Major, No. 3
Vivaldi | Concerto for Recorder in c minor, RV 441
Geminiani | Concerto Grosso No. 12 in d minor, “La Folia” (after Corelli)
Geminiani | Concerto for Recorder in F Major (after Corelli)

Sabine Meyer and the Trio di Clarone
Saturday, February 4,  8pm

In addition to developing a systematic training program for the clarinet and breeding horses, Sabine Meyer is regarded as one of the most outstanding soloists of our time. She was solo clarinetist with the Berlin Philharmonic, a position she left as she became increasingly in demand as a solo artist. Today, in addition to her solo appearances, she performs in two chamber ensembles, including the Trio di Clarone, whose other members are her husband and her brother. Trio di Clarone began in 1983, in part because of their shared interest in the basset horn, a rare instrument in the clarinet family that was used in Mozart’s Requiem and in his five divertimenti written for a trio of basset horns.

Mozart | Three Arias from The Marriage of Figaro
Poulenc | Sonata for Two Clarinets
Stravinsky | Three Pieces for Clarinet Solo
J.S. Bach | French Suite No. 5 for Two Clarinets and Basset horn
Mozart | Divertimento No. 1 for Three Basset horns, K. 439b
C.P.E. Bach | Duo for Two Clarinets in C Major, Wq. 142
Mozart | Four Arias from Cosi fan tutte for Three Basset horns

Chamber Ensemble of the Shanghai Chinese Orchestra
Friday, February 10,  8pm

The 20 members of the Shanghai Traditional Chamber Ensemble are drawn from the first large-scale modern orchestra of traditional instruments in China. While Chinese stars such as Lang Lang have brought new attention to Western classical music in China, this ensemble provides a window into the traditional Chinese classical music that dates back centuries.

Hagen Quartet
Thursday, February 23,  8pm

Regarded internationally as one of the foremost string quartets of the day, the Hagen Quartet consists of the two brothers Lukas (violin) and Clemens (cello) and their sister Veronika Hagen (viola), along with violinist Rainer Schmidt, who has been with the group for more than 20 years. For this return performance, the Hagen Quartet presents a program of Beethoven quartets, as part of UMS’s focus on musical renegades.

Beethoven | String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1
Beethoven | String Quartet in f minor, Op. 95
Beethoven | String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74

Pavel Haas Quartet
Wednesday, April 18,  8pm

Based in Prague, the Pavel Haas Quartet is named for Czech composer Pavel Haas, who was imprisoned at Theresienstadt and died at Auschwitz in 1944. While the Quartet is passionately committed to the Czech repertoire, and particularly the three wonderful string quartets that Haas composed, all their performances receive extraordinary acclaim.

Tchaikovsky | Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11
Pavel Haas | Quartet No. 2, Op. 7 “From the Monkey Mountains”
Smetana | Quartet No. 1 in e minor, “From My Life”

Return to the complete chronological list.