The St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) premiered an embryonic version of Osvaldo Golijov’s newest composition in Stanford Lively Arts’ Sunday, Oct. 23rd concert at Dinkelspiel Auditorium. In a brief introduction before the piece and in a post-concert conversation with violinist Geoff Nuttall, a warm and friendly but sometimes self-deprecating Golijov spoke with frankness. He talked about his struggles to have something presentable by the deadline, and “mountain” of rejected ideas on his piano.
In his words, “the piece is far from finished” and another movement may be added. Golijov did not seem wholly satisfied with the piece as it is—it will be fascinating to compare this version with the final version. The audience was lucky not only to witness a piece of music in mid-creation but also have the composer talk about his inspiration in person rather than in a program note. Golijov described imagery such as riding in a motorcycle and drawing conceptual ideas from the book of Ecclesiastes. Incidentally, Ecclesiastes is traditionally read during the Jewish festival of Sukkot, which just ended last week.
Golijov admitted to coming up with some of the ideas just this past Tuesday, and Nuttall half-complained half-bragged about the composer making changes hours before the performance. Golijov didn’t make any excuses for not finishing the piece, but he is one of a few composers who don’t have to worry about presenting an unfinished score; he has been awash in commissions from orchestras and chamber groups alike. His recent Sidereus, which was performed by 35 orchestras last season and his cello concerto Azul was premiered by Yo-Yo Ma this summer.
As of Sunday, the piece had two movements that had one thing in common: melodies by Schubert slowed down and “stretched almost to the breaking point” (as described by the composer) flying high and detached while the rest of the ensemble is busy with all sorts of activity. In the first movement this activity came in the form of obstinate rhythms repeating over and over. Golijov likened this to riding a motorcycle: the mind floats in freedom, enjoying the ride (i.e. the soaring melody) even while the engine churns noisily and the tires bump up against the rocks and the dirt. An analogy can also be made to Ecclesiastes: The author seeks to transcend the cycle of miserable grinding reality.
The second movement takes a similar idea but achieves entirely different results. In a slower tempo, the movement also features a slow melody but here the accompaniment creates harmonies that are dissonant yet beautiful, shifting in a vaguely 19th-century chromatic style at some points, and creating fresh atmospheric suspensions in others. The new piece was untitled in the program, but Golijov referred to it in passing as “Kohelet” (Hebrew for Ecclesiastes).
This is his second quartet, the first being Tenebrae, premiered by the Kronos Quartet in the string quartet version and by the SLSQ in the version with clarinet and soprano. SLSQ also recorded Golijov’s grammy-nominated Yiddishbuk. They have championed the music of Golijov for almost two decades and have premiered works by more of today’s best living composers including John Adams, Christos Hatzis, Johnathan Berger, Roberto Sierra, and many others.
Golijov also spoke of trying to capture the elusive wind and air, a challenge that he also undertook in my favorite CD of his, “Ayre.” This is where he alluded to Schubert, who with the use of tremolo was able to create a breathless quality—anxious yet in passionate awe. In Hebrew, the word for the wind is synonmous with spirit (ruach), the soul (neshama), and by extension, God himself.
Breathlessness was also a feature of Nuttall’s playing in Haydn’s “Fifths” Quartet, which opened the program. The bow sounded as if wind-tossed across the violin, picking up Haydn’s busy runs of notes as it went. In the fourth movement Nuttall’s fingers slid around the fingerboard in slippery jest. Long notes breathed with each bow stroke, tapering in and out in waves. Even Nuttall’s legs were flailing in the air, his black leather boots at some points almost as high as the music stand. It is a thrill to watch and hear.
The rest of the quartet provides a stable foil to Nuttall’s show-stealing brilliance. Scott St. John played first violin in the Golijov and the in Schubert’s monumental 15th and last String Quartet. Both pieces have extremely difficult first violin parts, with notes way up in the Stratosphere. In the Golijov especially, St. John seemed to struggle to vibrate the octave double stops and keep them sustained over such long stretches.
Lesley Robertson’s no-nonsense back-straight, rock-solid viola presence across from Nuttall is hallmark of the quartet’s 20+ years in existence. In the second movement of the Golijov, her melody accompanied by thin held chords was mesmerizing. Christopher Costanza played an unforgettable solo in the slow movement of the Schubert and his intense energy was felt throughout. This was the first of the SLSQ’s annual 3-performance series at Stanford Lively Arts. The group is one of the finest around, having a mastery of the entire string quartet literature while also at the forefront of brand-new music.