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High-tension strings play tribute to masters

Source: Daytona Beach News Journal

by Laura Stewart

DAYTONA BEACH -- The St. Lawrence String Quartet couldn't have offered Mozart and Shostakovich a better birthday tribute than Thursday's concert. The first of Central Florida Cultural Endeavors' "Great Masters Anniversary: Mozart/Shostakovich Project" performances, the program in Our Lady of Lourdes Church opened with a galvanic, richly textured reading of Mozart's String Quartet in C major, "Dissonance."

And then St. Lawrence, the Quartet-in-Residence at Stanford University, left gentility way behind and embraced the anguish Shostakovich experienced after World War II, during Stalin's purges and the Cold War. Except for one thing, it would be difficult to imagine a shift more abrupt than the one from Mozart's urbane 1785 String Quartet to the raw, acidic, pounding passages of Shostakovich's 1960 String Quartet No. 8 in C minor and the program's closing work, his 1946 String Quartet No. 3 in F major.

But the quality that linked the classical piece with the modernist outpourings is precisely the one that sets the St. Lawrence String Quartet apart, and makes its performances so powerful, and so memorable.

The ensemble's attention to every aspect of two very different composers' music rather than simply to the notes -- and to its own abundant virtuosity -- meant their Mozart sounded excitingly tenuous and spontaneous, as if brought to fresh, sometimes-stormy-sometimes- tender life on the spot.

Just so did the ensemble's fierce, superbly nuanced expression of Shostakovich's very personal statements vividly embody the experiences of a terrible time. The composer gave full voice to his emotions in the meditative 1960 Quartet No. 8. It was, he observed, a work written to his own memory. It included his reactions to such wartime atrocities as the bombing of Dresden and Stalin's purges and to the personal pain that infuses many of his own earlier themes, restated here

St. Lawrence interpreted them brilliantly, evoking the era's dark ethos through the Largo's thin note, set against the droning continuo. The brooding waltz of the Allegretto contrasts sharply with the echoes of solitude and intrusion that follow, as does the solo violin's lamenting over the Largo's last, crashing chords.

The concert closed with the 1946 Quartet's eloquent, urgent impressions. It began with a disorientingly off-balance waltz, scraped and tumbled against rough rocks in the Allegro and ended with ominous, suffocating notes that spun out into high, thin threads and faded to ghostly, forgotten dance.

The program that opened with a newly vibrant confection, Mozart's "Dissonance," flayed its audience with Shostakovich's infinitely refined and excruciating paeans to human suffering. It ended on a bright note that sounded too innocent, in its high-tension context.

The encore, by Haydn, was composed a decade before Mozart wrote "Dissonance," and a century and a half before Shostakovich captured the modern age's acid essence in his "String Quartet No. 3." For better or for worse, it leavened an evening of powerful emotions, and vigorous, cohesive musicianship.