String Quartet Engages Unlikely Audiences

Eilish Spear, Staff Writer

The members of the Saint Lawrence String Quartet, known for consistently pioneering the definition of contemporary music, will perform a program of Franz Joseph Haydn, John Adams and Beethoven at 8 p.m. tonight in Finney Chapel. Currently in residence at Stanford University, the SLSQ was established in Toronto in 1989, and since its formation has gained a reputation as a champion for new music and innovative interdisciplinary collaborations.

The quartet’s commitment to new music is a direct result of its long-standing collaboration with world-renowned composer John Adams. The composer has written three pieces for the quartet so far, one of which they will perform at Oberlin this week.

The quartet will perform Adams’s second string quartet, Haydn’s Quartet Op. 20, No. 5, and Beethoven’s string quartet, Op. 132 Friday night. The program is carefully designed to showcase a historic lineage in string quartet history. Haydn is well known for essentially inventing the string quartet, and later taught a young Beethoven. Both composers are recognized for their boundary-pushing innovation.

“Particularly [Beethoven’s] Op. 132, which we are playing at Oberlin this week, is really just nothing short of remarkable as a piece of music,” SLSQ cellist Christopher Costanza said. “It takes Haydn’s four movement structure and expands it and turns it into something bigger in terms of length and possibilities of the instruments.”

In his second quartet, John Adams directly quotes another of Beethoven’s late works — his piano sonata Op. 110 — and is heavily influenced by Beethoven’s string quartets. “It’s an interesting sort of trajectory,” Costanza said.

“I think the audience on Friday will understand this when they hear SLSQ’s distinctive perspective on Haydn and Beethoven … juxtaposed against American composer John Adams’ Second Quartet — a work directly inspired by both Beethoven and the SLSQ itself,” said Julia Lin, director of Oberlin’s Artist Recital Series.

In another collaboration with Adams, the quartet recently recorded “Absolute Jest,” his concerto for string quartet and orchestra, with the San Francisco Symphony, and has since performed the work with the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and for audiences in the UK, Germany, Romania and Switzerland.

“When you’re a member of a quartet you hardly ever do [concerto playing]. There are very few string quartet concertos … because it’s hard to feature a string quartet with an orchestra,” Costanza said. “It’s a lot of fun for us to collaborate with the musicians [and conductors] in these various orchestras who we would otherwise not have a chance to work with. … We’ve gotten great opportunities that we otherwise would not have had.”

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the quartet is its deep commitment to bringing classical music to communities that wouldn’t otherwise seek it out. Particularly in the high-tech world of Silicon Valley, the quartet has avidly pursued community engagement with companies like Apple and Google.

“It’s been really fantastic for us on a number of levels. … We have a lot of freedom to do things on campus that go beyond a traditional role,” Costanza said regarding the quartet’s experience in residence at Stanford. The university’s highly academic atmosphere has allowed the quartet to work with students from all disciplines, which has greatly increased interest in classical music across the campus and region.

“We’ve been encouraged to go to other schools on campus and develop other programs. So we’ve done med school programs, we’ve played for engineering students, we’ve played for the law school,” Costanza said.

While the quartet gives its usual performances in these settings, it has also been able to collaborate and talk with experts in every field. “It’s definitely fertile ground for the development of ideas that one might not think of otherwise. … It’s a lot of fun to explore unlimited possibilities,” Costanza said.

Prospects in the music industry are very different from when the quartet was formed, a fact that Costanza, whose daughter is currently an undergraduate at his alma mater New England Conservatory, is keenly aware of.

“There are so many great players [right now], and it’s great to see that, but on the other hand, where will careers come from?” Costanza said.

Despite the uncertainty of the job market, he thinks that there’s hope for young musicians.

“The biggest piece of advice I have is to not limit yourself, and to be as innovative as possible, to find new ways to play for new audiences always,” he said. “There are opportunities to take advantage of, and if they come your way, great. … I’m not a naysayer on the future of classical music like some people. I don’t think it’s dying. I think we just have to reinvent it.”