The St. Lawrence String Quartet presented the final installation in a series of three concerts at the Library of Congress' Coolidge auditorium last night with the second public hearing of a major new work by John Adams (Coolidge, not Luther, whose work was being featured across town at the Atlas), his String Quartet No. 2.
Adams, who was on hand to introduce the piece, has delivered an enthralling, eminently satisfying work that deserves to be an instant classic in his catalogue. Built on two small fragments from Beethoven's Op. 110 piano sonata and a nub from one of the Diabelli Variations, the quartet kaleidoscopes around these bits of familiar information in a richly imaginative procession of ideas. Adams' driving sense of rhythm is always present, animating some edge-of-the seat, feverish passages that dissolve and reassemble these motivic germs at blistering speed in the Allegro molto and the finale. But the Andantino also contains wandering moments of haunting stillness. Of the two occasionally deserved complaints that come to mind about Adams' work--eschewing minimalist austerity in favor of a playfulness that is fun but forgettable and overindulgence in a slack emotionalism that can overstay its welcome--neither can have any place in an honest evaluation of this earnest, winning piece. The St. Lawrence Quartet made exhilarating sense of the work's intricate details and brought the house to its feet.
The rest of the program was a delightful introduction to the group, which I had never heard before. The opener, Haydn's Op. 33 "Joke" Quartet was brimming with ideas and a welcome refusal to take things too seriously. Obviously kind of a prerequisite given the topic, but even before the well-handled "payoff" at the end, this was Haydn at its most inviting with no trace of portentousness. Meaty second half Dvorak (here the Op. 61 Quartet in C major) can sometimes feel like a chore when the most interesting programming has been saved for the first half, but the St. Lawrence doggedly kept the audience's attention, digging out all the naked Brahmsian beauty on offer in the Poco adagio e molto cantabile. An encore was a final fugue from one of Haydn's Op. 20 string quartets.