Stanford’s St. Lawrence String Quartet brings Beethoven to the San Francisco County Jail

The St. Lawrence String Quartet, Stanford’s ensemble-in-residence, performed at the San Francisco County Jail, sharing classical music with inmates. One prisoner described the experience as “a drink of water in a desert of concrete.”

Music lives and thrives in all sorts of unexpected places: theaters and living rooms, dingy warehouses and brightly lit stadiums. It blasts through car stereos and provides quiet comfort in moments of solitude.

Stanford’s ensemble-in-residence, the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ), brought live music to an unexpected place, far removed from the concert hall. They performed at the San Francisco County Jail #5 in San Bruno earlier this month.

The ensemble played for two pods, or groups, of approximately 50 male inmates per pod. The first pod was “Roads to Recovery,” a substance abuse program, and the second was “COVER,” which stands for Community of Veterans Engaged in Restoration. Most of the men are ineligible for pre-trial release.

Violist Lesley Robertson recalls the profound impact the music had on the inmates. One man, she said, described the experience as “a drink of water in a desert of concrete.”

The SLSQ played, among other pieces, the slow movement of Beethoven’s “String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132.” Written after a harrowing period of illness, Beethoven titled this movement “Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the deity, in the Lydian mode.”

The music explores the nature of suffering and mortality, ultimately giving thanks for the beauty of life and salvation. Though Beethoven could not have imagined the inmates of the San Francisco County Jail while writing his work, his music speaks to those who have experienced trauma, pain and loss.

A question-and-answer session followed each performance, allowing the musicians and inmates to discuss the nature of music and its incredible power. One inmate noted his affinity for four-part harmony, which is employed in music for string quartets. He commented that the four intertwining “voices” had a satisfying effect, a perfectly balanced outcome that somehow felt right.

Stanford Artist-In-Residence, cellist Christopher Costanza, of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, speaks to a group of inmates at the San Francisco county jail.

Stanford Artist-In-Residence, cellist Christopher Costanza, of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, speaks to a group of inmates at the San Francisco county jail. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Other inmates said the music recalled memories of home, of jazz and of loved ones. Struck by the audience’s generosity and presence, violinist Owen Dalby described the experience as almost mystical, a communion that happens only on rare occasions.

“These experiences really remind you of the big why – why music is so powerful and why it allows you to connect with others and with yourself,” Dalby said. The inmates, he said, “are some of the most attentive and patient listeners” he has ever encountered.

The SLSQ has long championed reaching new audiences. Their concerts are engaging, interactive and strive to include members of society who may not otherwise be exposed to classical music.

This is not the first time they have performed for prisoners. In 2008, the SLSQ played at the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center near Anchorage, Alaska, for a group of female inmates as part of a program called Arts on the Edge.

More recently, the Cecilia String Quartet played for women in the San Francisco County Jail as part of the SLSQ’s Emerging String Quartet Program, which encourages community outreach through music. Debbie Mukamal, executive director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, advocates for programs that improve the daily conditions of those incarcerated and was instrumental in connecting the leadership of the San Francisco facility with the SLSQ.

Dalby hopes that this experience will lead to future collaborations. The visit sparked the idea to have SLSQ return to work with the jail’s vocal group, comprised of inmates, and work with this ensemble on long-term projects.

Creative collaboration, Dalby notes, can be an important component of rehabilitation. In 1980, California became the first state to fund a professional arts program throughout its prison system, according to Eileen Hirst, chief of staff of the City and County of San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Department. Named Arts in Corrections, the program was created to reduce recidivism by engaging artists in residence, writers and performers to collaborate with prisoners. In addition, the University of San Francisco’s theater department works with male prisoners to write and produce an annual theater piece.

St. Lawrence String Quartet leaves the San Francisco County Jail.

St. Lawrence String Quartet leaves the San Francisco County Jail. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“Anytime we can bring people from [the] outside to expose the prisoners to something new, stimulating, thought-provoking, it’s an important thing,” said Hirst, who noted that Sheriff Vicki Hennessy is an especially strong advocate for this kind of interaction with and exposure to the arts.

“Jails are invisible. People have an idea from TV of what they are and who is in them,” Hirst said. “In reality, they are full of human beings who are struggling. The arts can be very important and soothing for them.”

It is precisely these people who need the arts the most, and with a strong commitment to reach audiences from all walks of life, the SLSQ will continue to fill halls, classrooms and jails with music.