Music

Geoff Nuttall, 1st violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, dead at 56

The New York Times called him 'chamber music's Jon Stewart' for his charisma and sense of humour. A former colleague says ‘his dynamic presence was awe-inspiring.’

‘His dynamic presence was awe-inspiring,’ says one former colleague

Geoff Nuttall co-founded the St. Lawrence String Quartet in 1989.
Geoff Nuttall co-founded the St. Lawrence String Quartet in 1989. (Eric Cheng)

The classical music community is mourning the loss of Geoff Nuttall, co-founding first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ), beloved faculty member of Stanford University's department of music and director of chamber music at the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina. Nuttall died in California, where he was based, on Oct. 19 of pancreatic cancer. He was 56.

The SLSQ rose to prominence in 1992 upon winning the Young Concert Artists Auditions and first prize at the Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) and subsequently signing a recording contract with EMI.

'A brilliant, electric personality'

The news of Nuttall's death was confirmed by Barry Shiffman, director of BISQC, former member of the SLSQ and longtime friend of Nuttall.

"Geoff had an ability that is so rare, the ability to make the listener feel what he is feeling," Shiffman told CBC Music. "It sounds so simple, yet it is everything. There's no security blanket, just a brilliant, electric personality that transmits the feelings directly. I remember hearing him when we were both teenagers, and he had that gift then. It was a way of making music I had never known and it changed me. Sitting beside him for thousands of concerts and countless hours of rehearsals has been one of the great gifts of my life."

A statement issued by the SLSQ describes Nuttall's loyalty to his chosen passions: "He fought cancer as he lived his life, brimming with optimism and tirelessly showing up for the things he loved the most: spending time with his wife, Livia, and playing sports with his boys; collecting vinyl LPs, building objects with his hands, and sharing the pleasures of analog experiences of all kinds; nurturing native plants and gardening; and seeking in the string quartet an ever more expansive universe of human expression."

Nuttall was born in College Station, Texas, and moved to London, Ont., at the age of eight. He studied violin with Lorand Fenyves at the Banff Centre, the University of Western Ontario and the University of Toronto, where he received his undergraduate degree.

In 1989, Nuttall established the SLSQ with co-founding members violinist Shiffman, violist Lesley Robertson and cellist Marina Hoover. Cellist Christopher Costanza joined the quartet in 2003; violinist Owen Dalby joined in 2015.

The members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet are, left to right: Owen Dalby, Geoff Nuttall, Lesley Robertson and Christopher Costanza.
The members of the St. Lawrence String Quartet are, left to right: Owen Dalby, Geoff Nuttall, Lesley Robertson and Christopher Costanza. (Marco Borggreve)

Alex Ross, writing for the New Yorker in 2001, described Nuttall as the "secret weapon" of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. "An opera maven and pop-music fan, he plays his solo lines with an airy, vocal freedom, exhibiting a distinct personality that is lacking in many better-known soloists."

Nuttall and his quartet colleagues received two Grammy nominations for their debut album, Yiddishbbuk, and won a Juno Award for their all-Schumann album, released in 1999. That was the year the St. Lawrence String Quartet became ensemble in residence at Stanford University, after having done stints as graduate ensemble in residence at the Juilliard School, Yale University and the Hartt School of Music.

"His connection to music was utterly immersive," explains violist Robertson. "When he listened to music, one could see him physically experiencing and reacting to the emotion, the momentum, the story. His music-making had the same kinetic connection. It was always and only about transmitting the composer's emotional message ... and activating all means possible to deliver that message straight to the heart."

"It's impossible to convey just how loved and admired Geoff was," she continues, "how much he meant to so many; how impactful he has been. I'm among the many who are bereft but also deeply grateful to have been part of his magnificent orbit."

Violinist Geoff Nuttall gives a masterclass to some aspiring string players at the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competition.
Violinist Geoff Nuttall gives a masterclass to some aspiring string players at the 2010 Banff International String Quartet Competition. (Don Lee/Banff Centre)

A 2013 profile in the New York Times focusing on Nuttall's tenure at the Spoleto Festival characterized him as "chamber music's Jon Stewart," drawing attention to Nuttall's charisma and sense of humour: "Mr. Nuttall is 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."

Meeting Nuttall left a lasting impression, says Shiffman. "To see how anyone — whether it be a president of the United States, a school kid in the inner city, a famous conductor, a manager or a student — was immediately impacted by his dynamic presence was awe-inspiring."

"I have five sisters," Shiffman adds, "and Geoff is the brother I would have wanted to have."

Nuttall is survived by his wife, the violinist Livia Sohn, and their children, Jack and Ellis, as well as his mother and sister. Stanford University has established a memorial fund. Details here.

Tune in to CBC Music on Saturday, Oct. 29, at 10 a.m. to hear Nuttall's episode of This is my Music one last time. On Sunday, Oct. 30, Paolo Pietropaolo will remember Nuttall and his accomplishments on CBC Music's In Concert.

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