The Stanford-based ensemble tours Australia with oboist Diana Doherty.

Stanford University feels too good to be real. The weather is idyllic, the grass is green, the students are shiny and diligent, and the wonders of San Francisco are just a train-ride away. 

So it is a relief to find the St Lawrence String Quartet in a rehearsal room much like any other, in a building that could be a music institution anywhere. There are concert posters on the walls, and a bulky grand piano hunches in the corner. A friendly clutter of music stands, instrument cases, and scores keeps the space busy. 

A closer look at what the quartet actually does at Stanford makes the ordinary rehearsal room look a little less ordinary. The players have given workshops at the business school and performed on iPads; they engage in debates and collaborate with scientists. 

Cellist Christopher Constanza explains, “In terms of teaching, our actual hour requirement is fairly low because of our touring schedule. But we do a lot of other things besides teaching at the university, some of them official, some of them not as official.” 

Violinist Geoff Nutall gives a quick insight into his schedule of the coming days. 

“Today I’m teaching three groups. One group has a freshman cellist and then three doctoral candidates in astrophysics – classic Stanford. Tomorrow at noon we play Schubert at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Centre, for a crowd of physicists. Then the next day there’s a medical conference, so we’re going to go and play Beethoven’s Heilige Dankgesang and talk about connecting music and medicine.” 

“The official quote,” adds violinist Scott St John, “is: ‘The Arts: Inescapable.'” 

Despite the fact that the quartet was born in Canada, and that three of its four members are Canadian, Stanford University has been home to the St Lawrence String Quartet since 1998. They retain their posts as visiting artists at the University of Toronto, and play, they say, almost as often in Canada now as they did in the early 90s, before the Stanford era. 

Ironically, the quartet has only spent a year of its collective life in Canada, though violinist St John – who joined the quartet in 2006 – had been a professor at the university of Toronto for the previous seven years. 

It was, if Nutall is to believed, an aversion to academic work that sparked the ensemble’s formation.  As young graduates, he and founding violinist Barry Schiffman found themselves in a back room lined with text-books taking a theory exam. 

“I remember going back and forth to these books and thinking, ‘Do we really want to spend another two years taking these classes? Or do we just want to play?’ 

Schiffman and Nutall had received study grants from the Ontario Arts Council, and decided to pool their resources, join forces with another two musicians, and form a string quartet. The Arts Council agreed. 

“We were really bad for the first six months,” he says. “Terrible! And the more we rehearsed the worse we got. It was really frustrating.” 

Then the young ensemble won a place to study with the Emerson Quartet at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, and things began to improve.  

“We were lucky,” recalls Nutall. “We got to work with really good people. First the Emerson, then the Juilliard, then the Tokyo string quartet – that was crucial on so many levels to improving.  Everybody wanted to help.” 

In 1992, the quartet won the Banff International String Quartet Competition and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions, and the ensemble was on its way. 

Today, Nutall finds books on music a great deal more interesting than he did all those years ago. 

“I think the more excited you are about something, the more apt you are to learn. So the more excited I got about Haydn and quartets, for example, the more I wanted to know – and then I actually started reading the books I was allergic to when I was at school.” 

Constanza, who joined the group in 2003, was drawn to the group’s way of working. 

“I always felt they had strong musical goals, and a laser-sharp sense of purpose.” 

The ensemble’s stability, says violist Lesley Robertson, has a lot to do with it’s members’ sense of mutual respect, and a willingness to try each other’s ideas. 

“Quartet success is predicated on hours and hours of intense work together in a room, then hours and hours travelling together, then hours and hours on stage together. You need a short memory, so that problems don’t bleed through into your personal life,” explains Nutall. “In the natural act of the quartet, you have to be completely committed and slightly psychotic, but then you have to be able to leave that there and be normal outside.” 

“The quartet is an unusual beast,” says St John. “It’s a four-person team without a real leader.” 

At Stanford, that’s a model which is seen to have interest well beyond the musical world. 

“The quartet seems to work without a boss,” agrees Nutall. “That was our connection with the business school. We could share our experience of how to designate authority in a fluid way that allows you to succeed without having a dictator in charge.” 

That in turn, explains Robertson, has implications for the entire campus – in fact, for the whole world. 

“At a recent campus meeting, they discussed the fact that if you look at the top 10 problems facing humanity in the next 200 years, they’re all problems which must be addressed collaboratively,” she says. “If we can’t produce people who can work in teams, then we’ll be in a tough spot.”

That’s a big job for a small ensemble; but then, the St Lawrence String Quartet has always been ready for a challenge.

St Lawrence String Quartet tour with oboist Diana Doherty for Musica Viva April 14 – 28. View event details here.