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Strange Strings

By Josephine Yun | Posted 6/26/2002

New Chamber Festival

At the Peabody Conservatory and Shriver Hall, June 21-22


Geoff Nuttall is living proof that you can head-bang to classical music. You can also writhe, leap, balance, bounce, hang your mouth open, and grin like a maniac--all while you're playing. The first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet did precisely that this past weekend at the New Chamber Festival.

The St. Lawrence foursome was just one of several excellent quartets that performed in Baltimore over the course of the two-day event. Billed as "a unique weekend devoted to discovering the chamber-music masterpieces of our times," the New Chamber Fest took pride in focusing on modern classical music, from Leos Janacek (died 1928) to Thomas Adès (born 1971). That focus is important, the program notes argued, because although 20th-century music "challenged our ears . . . it also spoke to the strivings, fears, and dreams of our lives." Friday night's concert at Peabody Conservatory's Friedberg Hall spoke to both striving (by the artists) and fear (for the festival's life). The musicians were great, but the audience stank.

The Endellion String Quartet, from Britain, opened up with Britten's String Quartet No. 3, and suddenly it was as if there was one person onstage, not four. In the second movement, quirky, bed-headed Andrew Watkinson drew honey-colored velvet out of his violin, subtly leading his partners in time. The Endellion organism executed the fourth movement's playful scherzo and dizzy waltz easily--breathing, thinking, and moving together, smacking of telepathy.

After an intermission, the St. Lawrence Quartet performed Berg's String Quartet Op. 3., which Nuttall described as "very dissonant, but really a romantic piece at heart." Nuttall and compadre Barry Shiffman wrenched piercing, metallic shards out of their violins as the former flailed in his chair, while Marina Hoover inexplicably coaxed the sound of a whirly out of her cello. Directly across from Nuttall, Lesley Robertson played calm, reliable viola, Tina Weymouth to his David Byrne. The St. Lawrence and Endellion then merged to end the concert with Shostakovich's Two Pieces for String Octet. Though the players got along fine, this is where the vibe took a nosedive.

Earlier, a honking car horn made Endellion's Watkinson arch a brow toward the hall's doors right before launching into the Britten; throughout that piece, an elderly man in the front section clutched repeatedly at the plastic bag in his lap, causing it to rustle. And minutes before the quiet end of the first Shostakovich piece, a group of seniors tromped into the balcony through the spiral-stairway entrance, talking. They sat. And then they changed seats.

Saturday night's concert at Johns Hopkins Shriver Hall was even better and, thankfully, much better received. The St. Lawrence String Quartet closed at Shriver Hall with Osvaldo Golijov's Yiddishbuk, Bartók's String Quartet No. 3, and Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 3 and was simply fantastic. If the group's performance didn't seem as weirdly organic as Endellion's on Friday (the players have been together for only 12 years, to Endellion's thirtysomething), Saturday erased any doubts of its talent.

With its brash music and brash performers--some brash audience members notwithstanding--the first New Chamber Festival bodes well for future editions. So stash some cash and grow out your hair for next year. Who knows, maybe a stage dive is in the works.

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