In their first visit to the Duke University campus, the St. Lawrence String Quartet continued the long string of sold-out string quartet concerts presented by Duke’s Chamber Arts Society. This quartet is the resident ensemble at Stanford University, much like the Ciompi Quartet is at Duke. For this November 15 performance, given in Reynolds Theatre, the group included cellist Christopher Costanza, who just a few months earlier jumped from the Chicago String Quartet to this exciting ensemble named for the mighty river.

The programming for this concert was nearly a perfect blend of the old, recently old and nearly brand new – in that order. Ironically, despite the fear that gripped many people upon seeing the entire second half devoted to a work written in 1994 by a relatively unknown composer, the new work became the most familiar sounding and comfortable to many in attendance.

The Chamber Arts Society gets very high marks for what is probably the most attractive and informative program notes for any series. This is no small thing since I strongly believe that this greatly enhances the total experience of a concert. The larger print also helps those of us whose vision isn’t what it was at age 20!

The evening began with Haydn, the composer who is recognized as the “father” of the string quartet. The Opus 76 string quartets contain some of Haydn’s best-known works, including those with nicknames like “Emperor” and “Sunrise,” which helped them become big sellers and concert favorites. The attempt to affix “Famous Largo” to this Op. 76, No. 5, work never quite stuck, but that certainly doesn’t detract from the greatness of the work. The quartet members bounded out onto the stage and launched right into the lovely opening movement. Geoff Nuttall (I forgive him for the strange spelling of his great first name!), first violinist and founding member, best represents the youthfulness and energy that characterizes this ensemble. He is a whirling dervish of physical responses to the music, so much so that at times it appears as he if he were about to be launched out of his chair. At first it seemed quite distracting – until you heard him speak to the audience. His enthusiasm and love for the music, combined with his wit and slight quirkiness, make you realize that his actions when playing are just a natural extension of his commitment. I am going on a bit about this because I overheard some comments that this appeared “distasteful” and even “disrespectful” to the music. This is utter nonsense. Rigidity and lack of outward emotion may be fine for sculpture but not for musicians.

We proceeded next to the “recently old” work – String Quartet No. 3 by Bela Bart?k. Readers of my past reviews know the admiration and awe I have for the Borromeo String Quartet’s traversal of all six Bart?k quartets last June, so I was not all that excited about hearing this performance. As if he were reading my mind, Nuttall alluded to the Borromeo’s concert in his introductory remarks to the work. He had the group play some snippets demonstrating some aspects to keep in mind, and he successfully de-formalized the atmosphere. This is the shortest of the six quartets, and the four movements are played without pause. It is as if all the thematic and harmonic material of a longer quartet is compressed into the fifteen minutes of this one. This does result in a grueling intensity that may leave many listeners scratching their heads. It is perhaps the most academic of the six, but the SLSQ gave a focused and personal reading that was true to the score while allowing the playfulness and spirit of their personalities to shine through.

Upon seeing “(1994)” after the name of a work, many people react with “Oh no, not one of those weird modern works.” The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind , written that year by Argentina-born composer Osvaldo Golijov, is fast becoming a staple in the repertoire. When it was listed that clarinetist Todd Palmer would be joining the St. Lawrence Quartet for this concert, most people assumed that they would be playing one of the famous clarinet quintets – either Mozart or Brahms. After the remarkable performance of this brilliant work, I can confidently say that no one seemed disappointed.

Dreams and Prayers is, according to the composer, “a kind of epic, a history of Judaism.” This is certainly a lofty aim, but if music can ever programmatically depict history, then this succeeds as well as any. The quartet and the composer have a close relationship, and although the work was premiered by the Cleveland Quartet with Klezmer clarinetist Giora Feldman, Dreams and Prayers now is mainly associated with these musicians. Palmer gave a very informative introduction to the work, its history, and his relationship with it, and he demonstrated the five different kinds of clarinets used. He also played an interesting excerpt and showed how the “Jewishness” of the passage is enhanced by certain techniques. Despite his initial concern that he, as a “Methodist from Maryland,” would not be able effectively to play such an intrinsically “Jewish” work, his playing was authentic, heartfelt, and technically unsurpassed. To someone of that faith, I found this work to almost touch the very DNA that makes my heritage. It was a truly moving experience, and it succeeded in transporting the audience through ancient yet timeless sounds.