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Review: St. Lawrence String Quartet conjures Golijovian magic

Who knows if composer Osvaldo Golijov is done tinkering with 'Qohelet,' but the piece as played by the quartet at the Barclay is remarkable.

April 22, 2013|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • The Philharmonic Society presents the St. Lawrence String Quartet performing a new piece by Osvaldo Golijov at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
The Philharmonic Society presents the St. Lawrence String Quartet performing… (Dan Krauss )

Eleven minutes and 22 seconds of what was once expected to be a major half-hour string quartet is not, quite yet, a comeback. But a little more than 11 minutes of very good music by a wonderful composer, loved by audiences and performers alike and simply one of the great musical forces of our time, is a start.

What's to be done about Osvaldo Golijov other than wait? Probably nothing.

His "Qohelet," which the St. Lawrence String Quartet played at Irvine Barclay Theatre on Sunday afternoon, had its first performance at Stanford University in 2011. The score was different then. This is a short piece with a long story.

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A decade ago the Argentine-born composer seemed to be the hottest thing in American music, with such works as "La Pasión según San Marcos" and his Lorca opera "Ainadamar." But he began to suffer writer's block after his 2004 song cycle, "Ayre." Since then he has mainly written smaller works (including a couple of gems) and not-memorable scores for little-seen Francis Ford Coppola films.

He has missed important deadlines, including a Los Angeles Philharmonic commission for a violin concerto. The block has been exasperated by a supposed exposé of plagiarism for an orchestra score, "Sidereus," that is based on a melody written by a collaborator. The plagiarism charge surfaced again with the premiere of "Qohelet," which used a Brazilian song in its first movement.

These charges are not clear-cut. The sociable Golijov defies the normal model of a composer creating alone, locked away in a lonely room. He interacts with performers when he writes, often driving them crazy making last-minute changes and treating his scores as works in progress. Moreover, he gathers music from a great many sources and cultures. Sometimes he changes very little, sometimes a lot. But that dash of Golijovian magic, when he finds it, can make all the difference in bringing foreign or even dead music to life.

All of the above apply to the new quartet. The piece takes its inspiration from Ecclesiastes, which is Greek for the Hebrew Qohelet or Koheleth, meaning "gatherer." Meaning, of course, Golijov.

So it is hardly surprising that Golijov has been messing with "Qohelet." Because of the plagiarism talk, he reworked the score for the New York premiere in February, removing the Brazilian song. But he didn't stop there. He reversed the order of the two movements, now beginning with a slow one and ending with a fast one and wrote a new transitional section connecting them.

St. Lawrence Quartet violinist Geoff Nuttall sounded slightly exasperated when he introduced "Qohelet" to the Barclay audience. Describing Golijov as a dear friend with whom he's worked for two decades, Nuttall also let it be known that he wasn't sure the inconclusive ending of the quartet as it now is, worked. "When you think it's not over," he said, "it might be over."

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Then again, knowing Golijov, it might not be over. The St. Lawrence could find itself with a few more pages of music the night before the next performance.

Be that as it may, "Qohelet" as it exists at this moment is a lovely, searching piece. The first movement is a mournful song, almost like a prayer heard from far away. Nuttall's metaphor for the transition to the second movement was that of a motorcycle chugging away in the lower strings, while a solo violinist soared, the driver as a free spirit. Once he had said that, it became hard for a listener not to soar along.

Momentum builds from the point on, and by the end Golijov is practically reaching for the moon. But his new ending leaves the "Qohelet" suspended in mid-air like, the composer writes in his program note, Don Quixote's sword. I heard that ending as an intriguing, unanswered question.

The St. Lawrence is an avid quartet that has become more avid through its relationship with Golijov, and I suspect that relationship affected how the ensemble approached Haydn's Quartet in D, Opus 71, No. 2 at the beginning of the afternoon and how the players irrepressibly tore into Beethoven's Quartet in E-Flat, Opus 127 at the end.

Nuttall is the quartet's most exaggerated member (the others are violinist Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Christopher Costanza), but the St. Lawrence does seem to get increasingly dynamic with each passing year. The fast movements in both Haydn and Beethoven began to approach jazz.

The slow movements proved, on the other hand, enthrallingly inward-searching. The quartet was once more polished. Now it digs for emotion at all costs.

Haydn and Beethoven may not need all the help they can get, but they got it here anyway, and that was gratifying. Golijov does, these days, need the support, and his getting it was even more gratifying.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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