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Geoff Nuttall, First Amongst Equals in Acclaimed Quartet, Dies at 56


Geoff Nuttall, a charismatic musician who played boldly as the primary violinist of the acclaimed St. Lawrence String Quartet for greater than three many years, and who was widely admired because the leader of the chamber music series on the Spoleto Festival USA, died on Wednesday in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 56.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, the quartet’s management company, David Rowe Artists, said.

Mr. Nuttall founded the St. Lawrence in Toronto in 1989 with the violinist Barry Shiffman, the violist Lesley Robertson and the cellist Marina Hoover. Training with the fabled Tokyo and Emerson quartets and taking first prize on the Banff International String Quartet Competition in Canada in 1992, they got here to prominence quickly and distinctively, with Mr. Nuttall first among the many group’s equals.

“The quartet’s stage manner was hip and casual,” though it had “an unmistakable seriousness of intent,” the critic Alex Ross wrote in The Recent York Times after its Recent York debut on the 92nd Street Y in 1992. “The performance had a dangerous, unchecked edge,” Mr. Ross reflected on a performance of Berg, “I even have never heard anything quite prefer it. In the longer term, this quartet should make its presence felt.”

The St. Lawrence did so. Its repertoire was individual, even quirky, focusing as strongly on recent music by the likes of Osvaldo Golijov as on older scores. It recorded pieces by the contemporary composers Jonathan Berger and John Adams with the identical intensity as those by Shostakovich, Schumann and Tchaikovsky that it released on the EMI label. (Mr. Adams wrote the St. Lawrence two quartets in addition to the quartet-and-orchestra “Absolute Jest.”)

If the quartet’s palpable commitment remained characteristic — at the same time as the violinists Scott St. John and Owen Dalby and the cellist Christopher Costanza replaced outgoing members — that was because its brio looked as if it would emanate bodily from its longstanding first violinist. Mr. Nuttall often played with such enthusiasm that he swept himself from his seat.

“Nuttall is the St. Lawrence’s ‘secret weapon,’ as the remaining of the group admits,” Mr. Ross wrote in The Recent Yorker in 2001. “His phrasing often upsets the central pulse of a movement, and the others either follow his lead or scramble to revive rhythmic order. Consequently, despite the rigorous discipline of the quartet’s rehearsal process, many passages sound riotously improvised.”

Mr. Nuttall’s electrifying ability to have interaction flowed from his deep desire to speak even on the expense of other, blandly technical virtues, and he was fully aware of the risks of failure; indeed, he welcomed them as imperative to performance.

Mr. Nuttall, a vinyl collector whose front room held greater than 10,000 LPs that offered as much inspiration from Miles Davis as from the Busch Quartet, told American Artscape in 2014: “A string quartet is officially really about being together. You really need to be unified and blended together. And I remember being inspired by ‘Nashville Skyline,’ the Bob Dylan record. He does a duet with Johnny Money. It’s such an awesome record, and so they’re not together in any respect. They’re totally doing their very own thing, nevertheless it’s totally unified and really powerful at the identical time.”

“And that was an awesome lesson on ensemble playing,” he continued. “Because if each one in all the duet is doing their very own thing in a extremely committed and convincing way, even when you’re saying the identical thing, which they were in that case, it might probably be more powerful.”

Geoffrey Winston Nuttall was born on Nov. 22, 1965, in College Station, Texas, to John and Suzanne (Shantz) Nuttall. His mother was a nurse; his father a physics professor who relocated from Texas A&M University to the University of Western Ontario, Canada, when Geoff was 8.

He took up the violin shortly after the family moved to London, Ontario, and played in his first quartet at age 10 or 11. He studied with Lorand Fenyves, a renowned former concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, on the University of Toronto, the college from which he graduated.

With the St. Lawrence, Mr. Nuttall was later in residence on the Juilliard School, Yale University, and the Hartt School of Music. He and his colleagues joined the college of Stanford University in 1998, leading its chamber music program and making the music of Franz Joseph Haydn — Mr. Nuttall’s favorite composer and one whom he thought was perpetually ignored — as much a core of their campus activities as of their concert programs.

“Arrestingly dynamic teamsmanship among the many 4 players allowed every gesture to be for the moment and each moment to be in your face,” the Los Angeles Times critic Mark Swed wrote of a 2018 recital of Haydn’s six Op. 20 works, which the St. Lawrence also recorded with gritty drama relatively than poised elegance. “The string quartet as theater doesn’t get more exhilarating.”

What Haydn’s music demands, Mr. Nuttall said in a presentation at Google in 2017, is “energetic participation, energetic listening, following the sport.”

He had a rare talent for uplifting exactly that together with his spirited talks during concert events about what made music value getting fully involved with. That, along together with his eclectic taste in repertoire, made him the best frontman to succeed Charles Wadsworth because the director and host of the early-summer Spoleto chamber series in Charleston, S.C., in 2009.

The St. Lawrence played recurrently at Spoleto from 1995, and for Mr. Nuttall, South Carolina became a house away from his Bay Area home.

He married Livia Sohn, one other violinist, in a Charleston garden in 2000. She survives him together with their two sons, Jack and Ellis, his mother, and his sister, Jenny Nuttall.

“It was an inspired alternative,” Johanna Keller wrote of the Spoleto appointment in The Recent York Times in 2013. “Mr. Nuttall seems to be chamber music’s Jon Stewart,” she continued, a “creatively daring, physically talented performer who can go goofball in a nanosecond, maintaining a veneer of entertainment while educating his base about serious matters.”

Mr. Nuttall didn’t particularly mind the comparison.

“Whether you’re 7 years old and have never seen a violin up close otherwise you’re an authority with a doctorate in music, I would like you to go away humming, elated, or having felt emotionally put through the ringer,” he explained to the Charleston Magazine in 2019.

“Music connects us all. There’s no secret code to know with a purpose to feel moved.”

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