The third concert of the Asheville Chamber Music Series at the city’s Unitarian Universalist Church was unlike any chamber music program I’ve heard. Clearly on an educational mission, the St. Lawrence String Quartet programmed only two works, Haydn’s String Quartet in C, Op. 76, No. 3 (“Emperor”) and Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Instead of playing more music to fill up the concert’s first half, a full half hour was devoted to a “Haydn Discovery Hour,” a lecture/demonstration before the performance of the musical elements Haydn manipulated in this justly famous work. First violinist and spokesman extraordinaire Geoff Nuttall led the audience through an animated exercise in “active listening,” both lecturing on the traditional building blocks Haydn would have known as a seasoned classical composer, and then joining the ensemble (Mark Fewer, violin; Lesley Robertson, viola; and Christopher Costanza, cello) in performance of key snippets of the piece. Nuttall is a thoroughly engaging speaker who, with his humorous remarks, was clearly reaching out to anyone in the audience new to chamber music. Carpet squares were set out on the hardwood floor at the feet of the performers and youngsters were invited up for a closer experience of the music; by the second half, there were four takers. By explaining the importance of recognizing such things as cadence points, melodic cells and how Haydn modified them, and formal structure and the composer’s humorous manipulation of our expectations, Nuttall and his colleagues demonstrated the richness of 18th-century musical language and how we hear it and come to understand it.

It’s no surprise that the quartet is affiliated with an educational institution. They are Ensemble in Residence at Stanford University when they are not on the road performing some 120 concerts annually. They perform the gamut of the quartet literature, including contemporary works, and will premiere a third work John Adams has written for them this January. They have been in residence for many years at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, SC, where many in this audience had heard them.

After the thorough deconstruction of the Haydn quartet, it was delightful to hear the work played straight through with the same sort of energy one would associate with a first performance. The three men are highly animated players – especially Nuttall, who assumed any number of postures to interpret his part. I couldn’t help noticing his striking grey shoes and socks on feet that frequently left the floor. Violist Robertson was much more subdued, as though she didn’t fully buy into this performance style, and while her playing was lovely, it lacked the dynamism of the other players. The highlight of this quartet was the famous second movement theme and variations on “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser” where each instrument performed the theme intact, as well as its elaborate and inventive accompaniments in other variations.

After intermission a much shorter talk was given on the more complicated Beethoven quartet, as though too much explanation within a single concert would ultimately be a turn off. Because the piece unfolds as seven continuous movements, the ensemble played the openings of each of the movements so they would be recognizable when they arrived. This was truly one of the greatest performances I’ve heard of this masterwork by any measure. The first movement, a fugue constructed around a narrowly winding theme which turns upward at the end like a question, was beautifully controlled and superbly voiced. This flowed seamlessly into the second, more animated movement which displayed more dynamic variety and some flawlessly executed unison passages. The brief third movement recitative set up the lengthy fourth movement theme with six variations plus coda at the heart of the quartet. This movement showcased the quartet’s astonishing versatility in executing music which encompassed so many expressive extremes, both drawing us into passages of deepest gravitas and moments of knee-slapping hilarity. The performance of the final Allegro, back in C-sharp minor, brought a cohesive and highly intelligent interpretation of a sonata form movement brimming to overflowing with raw emotion. No less a composer than Wagner opined that this movement expressed “the fury of the world’s dance – fierce pleasure, agony, ecstasy of love, joy, anger, passion and suffering, lightning flashes and thunder rolls.” The St. Lawrence Quartet danced us masterfully through these kaleidoscopic emotions, leaving this listener paradoxically both exhausted and supremely uplifted.

ACMS’ season continues with music by Mozart and Brahms on March 17. For details, see our calendar.