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Making music, with élan, in elementary school or Carnegie Hall

Not everyone can appreciate the Inuit-inspired shouts and outlandish dissonance of String Quartet No. 4 by Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer. But when Stanford's ensemble-in-residence performed an excerpt of the piece two weeks ago for a group of 8-year-olds, it was met with tremendous enthusiasm.

The young audience applauded and giggled. Several pleaded for an encore; others, volunteering descriptions of the music, compared the vocal yawps to a squall of dogs, or maybe chickens.

In a second-floor classroom of Redwood City's North Star Academy, a public magnet school for gifted children, the St. Lawrence String Quartet was doing what it does best: connecting with audiences, whether they're in elementary school or Carnegie Hall.

On this particular day, the quartet gave four music-dappled presentations to third-grade students about the nature of string quartets, string instruments and musical storytelling. The outreach effort was part of the Lively Arts Ambassador Program, which brings local artists together with kindergarten through sixth-grade students to prepare them for attending a performance at Stanford. In this case, students went to a Dec. 6 performance of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, musically augmented by the quartet and narrated by Canadian actor Alon Nashman.

For members of the ensemble, education and outreach -- or simply getting people pumped up about music -- are integral components of their philosophy. The group can regularly be found playing late-night concerts in Stanford dormitories or casually discussing with audience members the distinctive qualities of a particular movement in a composition.

"It's inspiring to see people react to the music," said second-violinist Barry Shiffman. "Whether they're third-graders or senior citizens or Stanford students, that's what drives us. We respond when they respond. It makes us play better. It makes us play differently. And it's thrilling."

The musicians have performed The Snow Queen for 1,500 kids in Saint-Nazaire, on the Brittany coast; played a concert for kids in a new suburb of Tokyo; and done outreach work for hundreds of kids in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte -- to randomly pick a few such efforts by the group.

In the Palo Alto area, outreach gives the quartet, which spends about half the school year and the entire summer traveling to festivals and concerts, a sense of home, Shiffman said. "I think it's really important that we explore the role of service to our community -- it's important for us to connect," he added. "It's disorienting be on the road all the time."

Osvaldo Golijov, the celebrated Argentine-born composer whose La Pasión según San Marcos was performed at Stanford in October, has said that meeting the St. Lawrence was a defining moment in his musical career. The quartet "was able to get beneath the notation of a piece and find a spirit in the music I had not heard before," Golijov said, responding to questions via e-mail. "They are completely fearless and can sometimes reach to a point of fragility and inwardness."



With the exception of cellist Alberto Parrini, who joined the quartet in August after the departure of Marina Hoover, the musicians grew up in Canada. (Parrini was raised in Italy and came to the United States in 1988.)

Shiffman, Hoover, violinist Geoff Nuttall and violist Lesley Robertson formed the St. Lawrence Quartet in 1989 after having regularly crossed paths at the Banff Centre in Alberta, which offers a chamber-music program over the summer. The ensemble is named after the St. Lawrence River, which cuts across a section of North America and marks part of the boundary between Canada and the United States.

In 1992 the quartet won the Banff International String Quartet Competition. Since then, it has become a regular feature of such music festivals as Spoleto USA, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Mostly Mozart in New York and the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival. The ensemble released its first CD, a recording of Schumann's Quartet No. 1 and No. 3, in May 1999, shortly after coming to Stanford.

Shiffman, who acts as a kind of unofficial press liaison for the group, was coy about revealing their ages, saying he would "get in trouble ... with personnel" if he were to give actual numbers. "Alberto is youngest at 29, and we are all under 40. How's that?" Shiffman offered.

The one who stands out is Nuttall, the first violinist. With cropped, bleach-blond hair, he would look at home on the cover of a Smashing Pumpkins CD. Nuttall really throws himself into his playing, lifting his right foot -- and sometimes his whole body -- into the air and pitching from side to side as he translates physical expression into expressive sound.

Meanwhile, the new cellist is giving Nuttall a run for his money in terms of animated music-making. Parrini's expressiveness, however, occurs from the neck up. His facial movements recall a silent movie actor exaggerating a look of surprise, anger, happiness, sadness, etc. (Except in Parrini's case, all four emotions may occur within the span of a few minutes.)

What's most striking about the quartet as a whole is the feeling of spontaneity -- of freshness -- it bestows on repertory works. Whether playing a quartet by Tchaikovsky or a contemporary piece, such as music Professor Jonathan Berger's Miracles and Mud, the musicians make it crackle with energy, as though they were scientists pulling the switch for the first time on a new invention.

"They're one of the finest professional quartets in the world. There's no question about that," said Associate Professor Stephen Hinton, chair of the Music Department. "But that doesn't mean that they just want to play in the finest concert halls. They're devoted to education. They teach by example, for sure. But they are also keen to nurture young talent, to organize student chamber groups, to play to school children -- as they've been doing this week -- to bring music to the community at large, to cultivate future audiences."


Musical storytelling

It was hard to say who exhibited more of an alert, energetic buzz at the North Star Academy two weeks ago: the third-graders or Nuttall, who explained to the young students how music can make one feel.

"There's almost an endless variety of sounds you can get using these instruments, but music is even better than that: It can make you feel angry, it can make you feel really happy, it can make you feel relaxed," he said. "And that's what the great composers who wrote music for the string quartet did."

Music can reflect the drama in a story such as The Snow Queen by helping to make the action and emotion more vivid, he said. When a swarm of bees attacks, the musicians play with tremolo; when ghosts make an appearance, the musicians play spooky harmonics.

Berger, who chaired the ensemble search committee that chose to invite the St. Lawrence to the Farm, said the four musicians are excellent spokespeople for composers who are new on the scene. "When they take a piece on and they feel good about it, they will go to incredible lengths with it," he said. "They exude an absolute love of music."

But it is probably Golijov who, in the liner notes of his CD Yiddushbuk (EMI, 2002), best accounts for the quartet's success: "They play music completely open, without a skin layer to protect them," he writes, "and they also live their lives like that."


By John Sanford

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