Saturday, February 4, 2023

concert review: Remembering Geoff Nuttall

I've mentioned before about the death of Geoff Nuttall, first violinist of the Stanford-based St. Lawrence Quartet. He was one of those vital forces of nature who's really missed. Curious as to what the quartet was going to do about their next concert scheduled for Jan. 29, I checked their schedule and found they'd replaced it with a "Remembering Geoff Nuttall" event. I decided to go. It was ticketless but they asked for RSVPs, mostly to figure out what attendance would be. I signed up.

The day before the event, I got an e-mail from the sponsors. It said there would probably be more attendees than could fit in the hall. It said they'd put it on a screen in the lobby, and it also provided a private link to watch it at home. I'd been prepared to show up hours early and wait, but on this news I decided to stay home and watch it there. Good thing, too. It lasted 2.5 hours without intermission, and I favor breaks. I took one while some guy who did not identify himself was rambling on and on and on, and when I came back he was still rambling. I did miss the reception afterwards, but receptions with people I don't know personally have always been difficult for me, and tougher under covid.

There was a program list online with eleven musical items, and it turned out they were interleaved with talks between each pair of items. The first piece was a Haydn symphony movement with about 20 chamber musicians, all friends of Geoff - including all the other 6 people who've ever been long-time members of the St. Lawrence Quartet, one of them their first cellist who retired 20 years ago.

Then Geoff's wife, Livia Sohn, who was one of the violinists in the Haydn ensemble, stepped to a microphone and said that Geoff hadn't wanted a memorial but she talked him into permitting it. But he set a couple of conditions: nobody wears black - most had colorful shirts like Geoff himself liked to wear, and Livia was in a bright orange dress, his favorite color - and that there should be more music than talking.

That latter condition was not met. Some of the speakers went on awfully long. Others were good to hear from, like St. Lawrence violist Lesley Robertson, who unlike her colleagues never speaks to the audience at concerts. Some of what was said I jotted down and preserved in the review - really more a report - that I wrote for the Daily Journal and, if you can access it, is here.

Checking for other videos on Vimeo, I came across one recorded a couple years ago by Barry Shiffman, former second violinist with the quartet (he played in the memorial ensemble but didn't speak) talking about how the St. Lawrence would be appearing at some festival he runs (his main activity these days). And he said something about Geoff which captures his character:
There's nobody I know that loves the music of Joseph Haydn more than the first violinist of the St. Lawrence Quartet, Geoff Nuttall. There's an almost religious zeal that he has when he talks about Haydn. It's as though he knows him like his brother, like his best friend. And having been able to sit beside Geoff for years in the quartet, and feel that excitement that he has for this music, was one of the more exhilarating memories I have of my time in the quartet.
There were no regular chamber ensemble pieces in the event. I think they wanted to avoid anything from which Geoff's absence would be too conspicuous. Livia was the only violinist who played a solo piece. There were a few cellists, and some singers. Besides a Purcell aria and a Rachmaninoff concert song, and the premiere of a Shelley setting by frequent St. Lawrence collaborator Osvaldo Golijov, who was there as was his piece (he's infamous for missing deadlines), there were a couple non-classical items. Tenor Paul Groves, who sang the Rachmaninoff, tried to rouse the audience up in "Don't Stop Believing" by Journey, but I don't know the song so I was unmoved. On the other hand, when Vienna Teng sat at the piano and sang her song "Level Up," despite her being unfamiliar to me I thought, I'd heard this song before. And yep, when I checked later I recognized having watched the video once, at somebody's recommendation. It was, in any case, appropriate for the Geoff Nuttall memorial, as it has the most determinedly upbeat lyrics of any song I've ever heard.

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