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Saint Paul SundayFeatured Artist

The Saint Lawrence String Quartet

A Moveable Feast: Saint Paul Sunday Hits the Road
by Vaughn Ormseth
October 24, 1999

From time to time Saint Paul Sunday packs its bags and sets out for the open road to bring the excitement of a Saint Paul Sunday session to listeners-especially schools, where a face-to-face, close-up encounter with a string quartet can enthrall even the most jaded teenager and inspire an interest in live performance. The Saint Lawrence String Quartet are committed to outreach activities and were eager to join Bill McGlaughlin and the Saint Paul Sunday staff for a trip to schools in northeastern Minnesota this spring.

  the Saint Lawrence String Quartet
  The Saint Lawrence String Quartet

If you've ever gotten the chance to hear a world-class string quartet close up, you know how the sparks fly. As Saint Paul Sunday's Bill McGlaughlin told schoolchildren in their own classrooms on the Iron Range last May, "It can be almost scary when you're used to feeling all that energy at a safe distance." He was referring to his traveling companions, the Saint Lawrence String Quartet, a celebrated young ensemble from New York who performed for students in Hibbing and Virginia as part of a residency designed to bring Saint Paul Sunday face-to-face with listeners beyond its usual studio setting.

The Range residency was one of three road-trips Saint Paul Sunday made this spring. In Ashland, Oregon, McGlaughlin hosted a concert featuring Terra Nova Consort-the official musicians of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival-to help celebrate 30 years of broadcasting in that region by the Jefferson Public Radio network. And McGlaughlin joined the accomplished Ames Piano Quartet for a concert in their home city to help WOI Radio there commemorate 50 years on the air. To round out the Iowa visit, McGlaughlin traveled to Des Moines to conduct the Grammy Award-winning senior orchestra at West Des Moines High School in a performance of Mahler's famed 5th Symphony Adagietto.

Whether Iowan or Minnesotan, the kids loved the encounters. On the Iron Range, annual school's-almost-out chaos seemed at first to jeopardize the kind of focused listening necessary for music of Schumann and Shostakovich. But the moment the Saint Lawrence began to play, squirming turned to awed attention and often outright delight. Lots of questions peppered each session.

"Why do you move around so much when you play?" (Answer: "Can you imagine your favorite MTV rapper standing still? It's the same with us-we can't stay together if we don't move.") "Do those purple marks on your neck ever go away?" ("No, but we're proud of them.") "How much did your instruments cost?" ("Mine was built by a student of Stradivarius and cost around a half million. Hers is just the price of a good car.") "Why do you guys wear black?" ("It doesn't show dirt when we're on the road, and besides, we live in New York!") Geoff Nuttall, the quartet's athletic first violinist and a Canadian, shrewdly chose hockey metaphors to demonstrate musical concepts and even shot a few hoops with elementary students after an assembly in Virginia.

St. Lawrence String Quartet  
Bill McGlaughlin and the St. Lawrence String Quartet in the classroom.


McGlaughlin believes such ventures can trigger lifelong musical curiosity and appreciation-long one of the series' sustaining missions. "Any of us with any luck owes a great deal to one or two or three teachers who showed us the elements of the craft and encouraged us to persevere at crucial points in our development. There really is no way to pay these figures back for the tremendous support they've given us. What we can do is to pass on that gift. These residencies have given us all a lovely opportunity to pass on a little of what we've learned and what we love in music to the next generation coming up."

Of course, young people make up only one part of the Saint Paul Sunday audience, and the series' recent tours touched listeners of other generations as well. An elegant house concert in Hibbing gave grown-up American Public Media supporters in that region a taste of their younger counterparts' school experiences. The concerts in Ames and in Ashland, each slated to air locally, were presented as actual live SPS broadcasts; they, too, concluded with audience questions. Open receptions following each event gave listeners the chance to interact personally with McGlaughlin and his crew.

Saint Paul Sunday's trademark sense of intimacy rests on the weekly rapport McGlaughlin weaves among guests, listeners, and host. Yet those listeners, scattered from coast to coast, remain largely hidden. The series' recent tours have given some of them the chance to put a human face on the voice that has kept them company each Sunday for nearly two decades. Likewise, they've given McGlaughlin a firsthand impression of the program's expansive reach - and its future.

"Working with kids," he notes, "is a bit like wandering through a field like Johnny Appleseed. You move on before the seeds take root and you can only guess at what the fruit of your efforts will be. But in these residencies you really do get to see on the kids' faces the excitement of learning, of having something penetrate down deep into their souls, and that's worth any amount of effort. The whole process is one of joy."

The Saint Lawrence String Quartet:
Geoff Nuttall, violin
Barry Shiffman, violin
Lesley Robertson, viola
Marina Hoover, cello

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