Artist Interview: St. Lawrence Quartet

By Erik Petersons on January 16, 2013
St. Lawrence Quartet
St. Lawrence Quartet

The St. Lawrence String Quartet has established itself among the world-class chamber ensembles of its generation.  Their mission statement: “bring every piece of music to the audience in vivid color, with pronounced communication and teamwork, and great respect to the composer.”  This commitment has earned them a place among the great quartets.  Christopher Costanza, the quartet’s cellist since 2003, spoke with me about the premiere of a quartet by Zwilich, their work with and their link with quartets before and after them.

Erik Petersons: Your program features the Philadelphia premiere of a quartet by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.  Describe your collaboration with her.  What inspired this piece and what is its greatest challenge? 

Christopher Costanza: The inspiration for the piece was Felix Galimir and the fabulous and groundbreaking work of the quartet he formed in 1927 with his sisters, the Galimir Quartet.  Felix's nephew, Richard Hurtig, and his wife, Judy, had an idea to honor Felix and the Galimir Quartet on the centennial of the birth of the youngest of the Galimirs by commissioning Ellen Zwilich to write this work, "Voyage," for the SLSQ.  We premiered the piece at South Mountain Concerts in Pittsfield, MA on October 7, 2012, and we brought the piece to the University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium series on November 16, 2012 (Judy Hurtig was the director of Hancher for many years, and Richard is a University of Iowa Professor).  We were thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to pay tribute to the amazing Galimir family in this way; we worked extensively with Felix over the course of many years, at Marlboro and Curtis, and Felix's brother-in-law, Louis Krasner (Louis was married to Adrienne Galimir, Felix's sister) was one of my most treasured chamber music coaches at the New England Conservatory in the 80's.  We've worked with Ellen on the piece, a most pleasurable and productive collaboration, and we've enjoyed getting to know the one movement work over the past few months.  It's an inspired piece, one that honors the Galimirs in many ways, filled with references to old Vienna and European folk and dance-like energy while musically illustrating the history and plight of the Galimirs as they enjoyed a flourishing European career for a time, followed by their inevitable flight from Europe at the onset of the Second World War.  The piece presents interesting challenges to the performers, mostly involving the need to identify with various character and mood shifts so prevalent throughout the work.

EP: How did the rest of the program come together?  Are there connections between the premiere and the two works that surround it?  

CC: The rest of the program, Haydn Op. 76, No. 2 (known as the "Quinten" or "Fifths" Quartet because of Haydn's extensive use of the interval of the fifth throughout the 1st movement) and Beethoven's third "Razumovsky" Quartet, Op. 59, No. 3, consists of very well known masterpieces of the quartet literature.  I think it would be a bit of a stretch to say that there are connections between the works.  In fact, the program emerged as a balanced presentation of pieces old and new: a quartet by Haydn, the father of the string quartet; a premiere, commissioned for us and keeping with our commitment to work with composers through their creation of new quartets; and one of the iconic and brilliant Beethoven quartets, perhaps significant in this program because Beethoven studied with Haydn and in many respects developed his approach to quartet composition as a direct extension of the work of Haydn.

EP: You have a strong commitment to expanding the works of living composers.  What drives your interest in performing new works, and what do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?  

CC: We have always been inspired by musicians and devoted funders–commissioners–who maintain a strong commitment to the creation of new works.  Without the creation of new pieces and the encouragement of living composers, our art will become stale, antiquated, and, over the long term, lose its luster and appeal.  Not to downplay the greatness and importance of works from the past, by such composers as Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Dvorak, and hundreds of others; their works will live on forever, I believe.  But those great composers were encouraged and supported by committed musicians and commissioners of all sorts, and without that type of support, who knows if they would have created many of the great masterpieces they were inspired and energized to create.  So I think we as musicians should all feel a strong desire and drive to continue the creative process through work with composers, and we should develop meaningful relationships with presenters and commissioners, always professing the importance of fostering the creation of new works.  We have no way of knowing which of these composers and what works will stand up to the test of time or who will be the next Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms, but the only possible course of action is to continue to encourage composers to compose.  For us specifically, we're always excited and inspired to receive, study, and perform a newly created work, and we gain great artistic insight through our direct work with composers.  As for audiences, they gain much from hearing new pieces: in the case of a premiere, they're literally hearing the first public performance of a new creation, a privilege and opportunity for certain; they have a chance to experience sounds, textures, and musical shapes without any sort of bias, since the new material is fresh and untested; and, whether they end up liking the piece or not, audience members will be moved by the sounds they hear, giving them a new and adventurous perspective on music created by a living, breathing human who has chosen to forge ahead in life as a composer.

EP: You recently released a recording of Haydn and Dvorák quartets through a partnership with  What was that experience like and how was it different than other recording projects?   

CC: It has actually been a few years since the ArtistShare project came to life, and in fact that recording is no longer available through ArtistShare (although we frequently sell copies at our concerts).  It was a pretty straightforward project from our end: we chose to record pieces we were interested in recording at the time, we engaged our great friend and fabulous producer Judith Sherman to produce the recording, and we transformed the final master into our ArtistShare release (we engaged a designer for the CD packaging and directly ordered the mass production of discs).  ArtistShare generally presents recording projects to potential supporters through their website prior to the creation of the recording.  Artists upload video updates about their projects as a way to garner financial support for the recording.  Ours was one of the first "classical" projects on ArtistShare, and it was in interesting experiment.  I think the model is a good one and can work particularly well if the artists are diligent about posting video clips about the project, during its creation and afterward.  Ultimately, it's the type of system that really needs regular attention and continuous artist self-promotion.

EP: The members of the Quartet were influenced by the Juilliard, Tokyo and Emerson Quartets during your early years.  As you mentor younger quartets now, what are some of the guiding principles you now find yourselves passing on?  

CC: We're committed to passing on the great ideals and inspirational direction we've gathered from the great quartets of the past, including those mentioned in your question as well as groups such as the Guarneri, Budapest, Amadeus, Galimir, Kolisch, and may others.  I think the best thing we can do for younger groups is to encourage and inspire them to delve deeply into the music they pursue, on all levels.  Sure, quartets need to learn to play together and in tune, and basic chamber music playing skills must be developed for any group to be successful.  But ultimately what matters the most is an unwavering, passionate, intense, and complete devotion to the music, the energy and direction of the music, and the complete and total greatness of the music.  Groups must feel 100% commitment to these ideas and must also feel equal devotion to works old and new, prominent and obscure, so that the future of our great art is assured.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet appears on Tuesday, January 29th at 8 PM at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.  For tickets and information, visit the concert page or call the PCMS Box Office at 215.569.8080.