Adams Embraces Beethoven’s Spirit In Second Quartet

The St. Lawrence String Quartet gave the premiere of John Adams' Second Quartet for Stanford Live.  (Photo by Marco Borggreve)
The St. Lawrence String Quartet gave the premiere of John Adams’ Second Quartet for the Stanford Live series.
(Photo by Marco Borggreve)
By Jeff Dunn

PALO ALTO — Who is today’s Beethoven?

Well, Beethoven himself, of course. The piano-banger from Bonn still lives in the music of countless concerts, and, more importantly for the future, in the minds of composers seeking inspiration for their works. The latest inspiree is Berkeley’s John Adams, whose Second String Quartet was premiered by the St. Lawrence String Quartet on Jan. 18 at Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, to be followed by regional premieres at the Library of Congress Jan. 23, at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center Jan. 28, at Music Toronto Jan. 29, Montreal’s Pro Music Jan. 31, Oberlin College Feb. 20, Temple Beth-El in San Antonio Feb. 22,  Colorado College April 7, and the Schubert Club in St. Paul April 19. The work is a worthy addition to the literature and a provocative evocation of the 19th century sans pastiche.

John Adams modeled his quartet after Beethoven. (Margaretta Mitchell)
John Adams modeled his quartet after Beethoven. (Margaretta Mitchell)

Adams worked closely with the St. Lawrence in crafting the music, wisely choosing the ensemble that brought wide attention to his first essay in the genre, String Quartet (2009), which the ensemble has already played 70 times. Geoff Nuttall, its first violinist, is enthusiastic about the opportunity to carry forth another Adams quartet. “He’s a rock star in our world,” he told one interviewer.

The rock star was there in person for the premiere, which was sandwiched between works on a program for Stanford Live that began with Haydn’s Quartet in F Minor, Op. 20, No. 5 (1772) and Beethoven’s Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131 (1825-26). With characteristic modesty in introducing his music among that of prior giants, Adams quipped, “I feel like a Chihuahua between them!” He then went on to outline the methodology for his piece: “We composers tend to be obsessive…We use and abuse other composers.” What Adams admires in Beethoven is his “combination of deep feeling, vitality, and energy,” which he hoped to inject into his work via the use of partial motives (“fractals”) from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, Op. 110. Adams colorfully described his attempt to “caress” one of the motives, only to have it “get away like a misbehaving dog” in his piece. “I kept saying (to the St. Lawrence) ‘Make it weird,’ and now it’s pretty weird.”

The 21-minute piece is divided into two movements, the second of which is in two moods and takes up about 60% of the duration. Motives are easily heard at the outset of each movement, and within a minute or so begin morphing, but in an organic way similar to what Beethoven conceived, not in a radical, avant-garde, extended-technique, or particularly modernist fashion. “Weird” it might be to Adams, but it sounded delightfully “normal” to me, even tonal, with a later emphasis on the interval of a downward third. The first movement features sudden stops and surprise interjections, but the stops are an essential feature of the source sonata — a two-bar rest between fortississimo chord crashes directed by Beethoven to be played violento.

While there are some quieter passages, the overall impression the music conveys is of frenetic high energy, with occasional harshness of intensity achieved by bowings nearer the bridge of the instruments. In addition to the Beethoven, the mood recalls Adams’ own roots in the minimalist style that first drew attention to his early works. Consistent with that style, despite considerable variety and interest, the whole sounded a bit too long for the material. I would venture that the music would be equally appealing were the first movement dropped altogether, since much of its sound (minus the sudden stops) seems to return in the latter half of the second movement. Nevertheless, the quartet is a significant achievement, reflecting a steady artistic growth.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet also played music by ?? and Beethoven. (Eric Cheng)
The St. Lawrence also played Haydn and Beethoven. (Eric Cheng)

The performance was committed and as energetic as could be wished. Nuttall’s intonation was spot on (although the tone a little dry at times), and his gestures, utterly consistent with the music, were mesmerizing. Anyone who has witnessed a performance of his will know that he gets his legs into the action as much as his arms. He is the air-dancer of violinists. Second violin Mark Fewer contributed strong support, while Lesley Robertson’s viola and Christopher Costanza’s cello added beauty of tone and precision accompaniment to the proceedings.

George Rochberg, a formerly twelve-tone composer, shocked his contemporaries by writing chamber works, movements of which sounded like they could have been written by Schumann. Adams has bettered Rochberg by writing a Beethovenesque work that could only have been written by Adams.

The St. Lawrence did a fine presentation of the opening Sturm und Drang Haydn quartet. The Allegro moderato had appropriate gravitas. I was especially impressed with the clear cello lines in the Menuetto. The Siciliano adagio always goes on too long for me, no matter who plays it. The fugal finale could have used even more intensity, but Bing Hall has a large volume: As clear as its acoustics are, a quartet concert there can never be as in-your-face as true chamber music in a parlor.

The concluding Beethoven quartet was slightly marred by Nuttall’s miscue on the opening-note upbow, but the rest of the masterpiece was carried off with aplomb. Especially effective were the dynamics of the Presto, combined with the sure teamwork of passing motives around like hot potatoes.

All performances raised loud cheers from the audience, though, unusual for California patrons, it was an ovation that saw few standing.

Jeff Dunn writes regularly for San Francisco Classical Voice.