Los Angeles Music Review: ST. LAWRENCE STRING QUARTET (Wallis Annenberg Center in Beverly Hills)

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by Daniel S. G. Wood on January 17, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


Beverly Hills’ newest and best-looking addition, the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, debuted its classical music series with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, a very promising choice given the quartet’s previous accolades: Ensemble in Residence at Stanford, winners of the Banff International String Quartet competition, and even a good line from Alex Ross, the patron saint of music criticism.

Artist's rendering of the Bram Goldsmith Theater at The Wallis Annenberg Performing Arts Center.

Ostensibly, the event also seemed like a solid bet to establish the Bram Goldsmith Theater as a legitimate music venue, but this concert exposed the hall as not yet entirely supportive of a string quartet. Whatever the problem—either the tuning shell’s upstage wall needs to be closer or acoustical materials need to be differently arranged—from my fifth row seat, the quartet sounded wimpy and watered down.

Iffy acoustics aside, there were a few smaller issues and one huge problem for this clearly capable quartet. It wasn’t the very recent addition of second violinist Mark Fewer, who frankly sounded better than the first violinist Geoff Nuttall, whose goofy gamboling histrionics marred his playing. It certainly wasn’t cellist Christopher Costanza, who was inventive, solid, and involved. Nor was it violist Lesley Robertson, although her distant and dour demeanor made me wonder if she was either under the weather or if there was validity to the so-called classic violist disease of being a little cold. Besides empirical issues—intonation mishaps and the first violinist’s overzealous efforts—the numbers actually all fell squarely into what is reasonable and allowed. The team is definitely good.

St. Lawrence String Quartet.

What it boils down to is programming, and this is a crime committed by many chamber musicians who program for themselves. The head-scratching line-up consisted of the Haydn Op. 76 no. 3, the Korngold Op. 34 no. 3, and the Beethoven Op. 59 no. 3. There are certainly musical connections (Vienna), but the Haydn and Beethoven felt like selections a quartet would use for a Juilliard chamber music jury. Of course these pieces demand a high level of mastery but the pieces just dragged, despite the enjoyable tune in the Haydn slow movement and the testosterone-fueled fugue in the Beethoven. There is grandeur and value in these works, but for a brand new classical series at a potentially world-class and very expensive new hall, the selections shouldn’t be so square (especially the first piece, which should blow us away right out of the gate).

Stuffed between these two was the Korngold, which did not tally with the celluloid magic promised in Nuttall’s clumsy preamble. It was a terrific piece actually, and did in fact quote some of Korngold’s own work for Hollywood, but most of it was couched in a sort of early twentieth-century German expressionism that had me lusting for one of the better examples of the Germany/Beverly Hills musical connection: Arnold Schoenberg.

St. Lawrence String Quartet

The first violinist also mentioned that part of the idea behind the presentation of this piece was to observe Beverly Hills as the musical haven for WWII émigrés of the 40s and 50s, which got me thinking: Why sandwich the relevant and warm-blooded Korngold between Haydn and Beethoven? Not only do these pieces lean towards the antique “musicians only” vibe that shuns many a young ear, but other composers such as Stravinsky and Schoenberg are not only more relevant to the occasion (by the quartet’s own thinking), but way more interesting and way more rock and roll. There is a time and a place to carve out respect for venerated masters, but last night’s show was neither.

This is a talented group, but they blew this chance. I can’t say I’m that surprised because time and again Museum culture mistakenly thinks that the octogenarian money club will always be around to bail out classical music’s ineptitudes. But maybe this whole enterprise is foundationally doomed. Had St. Lawrence Quartet’s programming not been deficient, would there have been less empty seats at the start and more patrons remaining after intermission? (I agree with those who departed.) I love string quartets and chamber music; but last night’s events, alongside many others I have seen which lack character in selections, musicianship, and sound, add to the pile of evidence screaming for a paradigm shift.

The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, POSTER

photos courtesy of the Wallis Annenberg Center

St. Lawrence String Quartet
Bram Goldsmith Theater
Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts
9390 N. Santa Monica Blvd, Beverly Hills
played on January 15, 2014
for future events, call 310-746-4000 or visit www.thewallis.org
for St. Lawrence String Quartet info and tour dates, visit www.SLSQ.com

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