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Music review: St. Lawrence String Quartet performs John Adams at the Broad Stage

March 8, 2010 |  3:00 pm

Stlawrence_concertpage John Adams is being heard from a lot in Southern California this season – and not the least of it were the first local performances of his new work for the St. Lawrence String Quartet.  Orange County heard the piece last November, and the Westside’s turn came Sunday afternoon at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

Forgoing his usual loopy or provocative titles,  Adams simply calls his work String Quartet as if it were an isolated opus, or perhaps the start of a cycle. Actually, his involvement with quartets goes back to the 1970s with a piece called “Wavemaker” that was scrapped after one performance, whose fragments were used to construct “Shaker Loops.”  Much later came “John’s Book of Alleged Dances” --  11 short, bumpy bagatelles with a “rhythm track” -- and in 2007, a five-minute birthday gift for Peter Sellars, “Fellow Traveler.”

So this is really Adams’ fourth string quartet if you’re keeping score, but it feels like his first grand-scale entry into the field. 

Structurally, it resembles another Adams work from 2009, “City Noir,” with a sprawling 20 1/2-minute opening movement in which several sections run together, and a shorter finale that leads to an intense, hard-won, crowd-pleasing conclusion.

Early on, there are traces of the Ravel quartet that allegedly inspired this work, but they are overwhelmed by the peppy Adams rhythm machine that launches the piece and his distinctive harmonic flavors. 

Sometimes there are arid stretches where the texture gets very thin and interest flags somewhat.  But Adams keeps trying to start up the engines again, eventually succeeding in jazzy, busy streaks of energy – again, not unlike “City Noir.”  The piece fits the mood-swinging, physically stoked personality of the St. Lawrence very well; at times, first violinist Geoff Nuttall boogied uninhibitedly to the line.

Naturally, the Ravel quartet served as a companion piece for the new Adams quartet, and prior to that was a Haydn quartet, Opus 54, No. 2, which has structural quirks of its own.  The St. Lawrence assumed very different profiles for each – a boisterous, lurching, almost roughneck pose for the Haydn and a suaver, deeper, richer tone quality for the Ravel – while sharply characterizing every detail in both.

The encore was more Haydn, the Andante from Opus 77, No. 2.

-- Richard S. Ginell


John Adams, the L.A. Phil's other new kid

Photo credit: Marco Borggreve