The St. Lawrence String Quartet has enjoyed long love affairs with Haydn and Beethoven, and both lodged squarely in the group's first program of the season Sunday at Stanford University's Bing Concert Hall. But sandwiched between them was a persuasive new voice, that of composer Samuel Carl Adams, who is only 27.
In case you haven't yet heard his story, he was born and raised in the East Bay, the son of composer John Adams and photographer Deborah O'Grady. He studied composition at Stanford as an undergraduate, at Yale as a graduate student. He lives in Brooklyn. Last year, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony premiered his "Drift and Providence," a deftly orchestrated work, full of jangling textures and moody atmospherics, with Claude Debussy and jazz arranger Gil Evans among its points of reference.
But most notable about "Drift" was Adams' ability to summon his own sound world beyond his influences. He has done it again with String Quartet in Five Movements, which was composed for the St. Lawrence, who premiered it in June at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C,, and gave the piece its West Coast debut Sunday at Bing. It's an absorbing work, matching fine-spun sound with the richness of silence and creating for the listener -- at least this listener -- the sense of being at the edge of a dream-state.
Before the Stanford Live performance, Adams -- appearing on a large projection screen, via Skype -- spoke from New Hampshire about the work, his first string quartet. Until the St. Lawrence suggested the project, he said, the thought of composing for string quartet had intimidated him, because the format includes many of his favorite works by master composers. His way around the quandary, he said, was to aim for a sense of "levity and weightlessness" with his own piece -- doing an end run around the weightiness of the genre.
The first movement, titled "Old Music," references François Couperin: lilting gestures for fiddle, like distant echoes or fragments of the Baroque; lone percussively struck cello notes, sounding almost like a frame drum, out of the pre-Baroque; and a general sense of mellow melodicism that plunges toward dark modes and moods, everything balanced at a tipping point before trailing off in a playful vapor.
It all seemed extracted from the memory of something larger. So did the second movement, "Quiet, Rocking with Sad Cello Solo," which set the cello's melody against the hazy drone of the three other players. Tender -- somewhat in the manner of Shostakovich, but without the irony -- it evoked rich solitude: time spent in a quiet cottage, shot through with light at mid-day.
The performance by the St. Lawrence -- violinists Geoff Nuttall and Scott St. John, violist Lesley Robertson, cellist Christopher Costanza -- was as fine-spun as the 20-minute work. Its fourth movement, "Minuet and Trio, Sometimes in 5," drew out its murmured and whistled effects for too long a stretch. But this is a significant work, overall, confident in its craftsmanship, evocative with its diaphanous textures, its long-lined spaciousness, its use of space and silence as essential materials. Quietly powerful and with its own vocabulary (i.e. no pulsing minimalism), it focuses the listener: The finale, "Hymn, Vanishing," seems to arrive from some mysterious epoch.
That hymn helped the St. Lawrence to bridge the distance between Haydn, who opened the program (with the String Quartet in D major, Op. 71, No. 2, one of the "Salomon" Quartets), and Beethoven, who closed it (with the late String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132).
The St. Lawrence just about always plays Haydn with bounce and charm. Sunday, the Adagio cantabile stood out: sweet and yearning, with the three other voices braiding around Costanza's cello.
Beethoven's incomparable work was as balanced, slow-turning and wondrous as one would hope. St. John, who will leave the quartet at the end of 2013 (he is relocating to Canada with his family), led the "Hymn of Thanksgiving" with precision, tenderness and power.
St. Lawrence String Quartet
Ensemble-in-residence at Stanford University, since 1998
Next performance: Jan. 12 (works by Dvorak and Janacek)
Where: Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University
Tickets: $25-$75; 650-725-2787, live.stanford.edu