CAMBRIDGE -- The piece that blasted composer Osvaldo Golijov's career into orbit, "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind," is 10 years old now.
In a postconcert conversation with the Sanders Theatre audience on Saturday night, Geoff Nuttall, first violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, saluted the birthday, and Golijov replied, "Three more years and we'll have the bar mitzvah!"
Born into an Argentine Jewish family with roots in Eastern Europe, and now resident in Newton, Golijov wrote this piece for the Cleveland Quartet and a klezmer clarinetist, Giora Feidman. Soon it was taken up by quartets and clarinetists all over the world, and with good reason.
It is a kind of 35-minute survey of Jewish history and Jewish music; it is full of mystery, pain, and celebration. It begins quietly with, as Golijov said, "the sound of an accordion in an attic, covered with cobwebs and playing by itself." And what it is playing is an ancient prayer. The second movement brings cathartically wild dance music, and the finale returns us to the atmosphere of devotion.
Golijov met the St. Lawrence Quartet at Tanglewood in 1992, when the ensemble was in its second year together, and the group has become one of the voices of his music. Its members go at it with imagination, sensitivity, sensational physical abandon, and a complete lack of emotional inhibition.
Todd Palmer, spreading the clarinet part across five different members of the instrument's family, from the high, sweet-toned C clarinet down to the bass, was as sensationally virtuosic and soulful as the music requires him to be ("and I'm a Methodist," he remarked in the postconcert conversation).
You can't say that the St. Lawrence Quartet (Barry Shiffman, violin, Lesley Robertson, viola, and Christopher Costanza, cello, in addition to Nuttall) has become the hottest of the younger string quartets; it was hot from the beginning. The musicians are not bound by conventions of concert attire (Nuttall sported velvet pants, and Robertson's pink neon striped top looked like a bathing-suit costume from "No, No Nanette") or deportment (there's lots of body language in their playing, and there are ballet dancers who don't kick as high as Nuttall). The playing is both out there and in your face. Haydn's Op. 64, No. 2 was performed as a kind of championship game, and it was fun to watch and hear the musicians playing tag.
Ravel's Quartet requires refinement, and the foursome provided a ravishing demonstration of how big, bold playing can be even more precise and detailed than the fussy, miniaturized approach often brought to the piece. The audience, full of students and young music lovers, whooped and hollered in approval.
(St. Lawrence String Quartet; Presented by FleetBoston Celebrity Series; At Sanders Theatre, Saturday night.)