Sunday’s second chamber program began with new series host Geoff Nuttall waxing ecstatic about Austrian master Josef Haydn, the “inventor” of the string quartet form as we know it. “We get downright evangelical about him,” said Geoff, “we” being the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ), which he serves as first violin. Not only did Haydn invent the genre, but he left us dozens of examples, nearly all of top quality; a real treasure trove for string quartet musicians everywhere.

After our chief evangelist preached Haydn’s praises at some length, he and his SLSQ sidekicks (second violin Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson, and cellist Chris Costanza) settled down to deliver one of Haydn’s earlier efforts: the fourth of his six Op. 20 quartets. The happy and imaginative first movement stood in sharp contrast to the more subdued minor-key theme-and-variations that followed. The customary Minuet movement was anything but courtly and dignified; it was more like a propulsive and syncopated Hungarian Gypsy dance, “with accents in all the wrong places,” as Geoff put it. That one, together with the speedy finale (also in Gypsy style), demonstrated the bountiful wit and humor that Haydn never stopped pouring into his music. Geoff and company simply nailed it, achieving particular excitement in the finale, which they barreled through at breakneck (and risky) tempos. The crowd loved it.

The Hungarian mood (with Rumanian and Greek overtones) continued with Contrasts, by Hungarian hero Bela Bartok. Much of his music is strongly folk-influenced, though it’s stunningly sophisticated at the same time. The piece, as Nuttall told us, was originally commissioned by jazz great Benny Goodman, who was also fond of performing classical music. Doing the honors here were violist Hsin-Yun Huang, clarinetist Todd Palmer, and pianist Pedja Muzijevic. The opening “Recruiting Dance” was a marvel of virtuosity, full of interesting melodies and effects, and more than a touch of musical sarcasm. The following “Relaxation” — despite its animated central interlude — came across like a dreamy nocturne, with ghostly high notes from Hsin-Yun’s glowing viola. The final “Fast Dance” brought more Gypsy flavors to bear, teasing the listener’s ear with a wealth of rhythmic and harmonic tricks. Todd Palmer had a ball with it, which means his listeners did, too.

Next came another Baroque-era treat (Geoff told me we’d be hearing more of those this year): one of JS Bach’s wonderful viola da gamba sonatas, played here by Hsin-Yun (on viola) and Pedja at the piano. Geoff told us that our artists decided to use a piano instead of the original harpsichord, since the modern viola has a more penetrating tone than the ancient viola da gamba, and can carry well over a louder instrument like the piano. Besides, Bach tended to give his harpsichord parts a more important role than its customary basso continuo function, writing an obbligato line for the performer’s right hand that makes it an equal partner to the solo instrument, capable of adding to the polyphonic interplay. The net effect was wonderful, making it easier for the listener to pick up on Bach’s rich counterpoint. Classical geekspeak aside, it was music of sheer genius, played to perfection.

The final work was a radical departure from the series’ usual fare. Pianist Stephen Prutsman is not only a brilliant keyboard artist, but also an accomplished composer and arranger (among other talents), and he’s given us some pretty interesting and offbeat crossover shows in Spoletos past (like playing his own soundtrack for an old silent movie while we watched it). He’s also something of an expert on classic rock ‘n’ roll music of the ‘60s and 70s. So what we got was “Yes transcriptions.” His piano arrangement of “Sound Chaser,” one of the top hits from the rock band Yes. Steve sauntered out on stage in an old, untucked shirt (he’s normally quite the natty dresser), and proceeded to give us a mini-rock concert from the keyboard, complete with a modest light show and clouds of mist billowing onstage. He hammed his act up quite a bit, and the end result was really kinda funny — and a great way to end a terrific concert. 

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