Geoff Nuttall, violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet, dies at 56


On Wednesday morning, beloved St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) violinist Geoff Nuttall passed away after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 56 years old.

“He battled cancer throughout his life, brimming with optimism and tirelessly showing up for the things he loved most: spending time with [his wife] Livia and playing sports with her boys, collecting vinyl, building objects with her hands and sharing the pleasures of analog experiences of all kinds; native plant care and gardening; and seeking in the string quartet an ever-expanding universe of human expression,” writes the SLSQ in a joint statement.

Nuttall was a valued faculty member in the Department of Music, serving as artist-in-residence at the SLSQ since 1999. Since his arrival, dozens of violin students have studied with him in private lessons. As part of the SLSQ, Nuttall also led the department’s strong chamber music program, serving as a coach and mentor for student musicians in all disciplines and instrumental fields.

Geoff Nuttall (above) performs at the Spoleto Festival in the summer of 2022. Nuttall was director of chamber music for Charles E. and Andrea L. Volpe at the festival from 2010 to 2022. (Photo courtesy permission of the Spoleto Festival)

Many knew him for his performances with the SLSQ, ranging from frequent “Sundays with the St. Lawrence” gigs for Stanford Live to appearances at festivals across the country. The ensemble’s love for Haydn earned them a feature on PBS’s 2020 “Great Performances” series, in which they discussed his life and music. Their recording of “Yiddishbbuk” by contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov earned them two Grammy nominations in 2002.

Known for his goofy pre-performance banter, Nuttall wowed listeners with dynamic virtuosity and effortless pedagogy. The New York Times double him the “Jon Stewart of chamber music”, adding that he “has established a new style of presentation that juxtaposes the ridiculous with the sublime, [delved] in serious and casual musicology [used] Technology. In short, he [was] subtly redefining what a chamber music concert can be.

Music Department Chairman Stephen Hinton recalled Nuttall’s legacy: “Geoff, the ‘primus inter pares’ of [SLSQ], will be remembered for his indomitable spirit as well as his tremendous impact on musical life. Not only was he a brilliant and inspired musician; he was also an excellent colleague and a dear friend.

The St. Lawrence String Quartet performs in a semi-circle on stage against an ornate green and brown backdrop.  The violinists, Geoff Nuttall and Owen Dalby, are seated in chairs at left.  Cellist, Christopher Costanza, is seated middle right.  The violist, Lesley Robertson, sits on the far right.  Everyone actively plays their instrument.
Geoff Nuttall (above left) performs with the St. Lawrence String Quartet. The ensemble has been in residence at Stanford since 1998. (Photo courtesy of Spoleto Festival)

Born and raised in Texas, Nuttall first learned the violin when he was eight years old. Later he moved with his family to Canada, where he would spend the rest of his musical education. He studied with violinist Lorand Fenyves at the University of Toronto.

In 1989, Nuttall co-founded the SLSQ with violist Lesley Robertson, whom he met as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. The quartet quickly rose to international fame, earning recognition at the Banff International String Quartet Competition and Young Concert Artist Auditions. Before moving to Stanford in 1998, the quartet had been the ensemble in residence at the Juilliard School, Yale University and the Hartt School of Music.

Nuttall also served as director of chamber music at Spoleto Festival USA, one of the nation’s premier performing arts festivals. Under his tenure, the festival hosted more than 30 chamber music concerts each year, attracting over 15,000 spectators.

The Spoleto Festival wrote in a press release: “In his final days, his wife, renowned violinist Livia Sohn…asked Nuttall if he had any unfulfilled aspirations on his to-do list. With his trademark humor and grace, Nuttall replied, “My life has been my to-do list.” Nuttall passed away peacefully, with Livia by his side. He is survived by his sons, Jack and Ellis, as well as his sister, Jenny Nuttall and his mother, Suzanne Nuttall.

Geoff Nuttall sits in a blue suit on a wooden chair, looking left.  He is holding a rolled piece of paper and his legs are crossed.  Behind him is a blackboard with the words,
Nuttall (above) poses on a chair in Braun’s rehearsal room. The St. Lawrence String Quartet is renowned for its performances and its interest in the works of Franz Joseph Haydn. (Photo courtesy of Eric Cheng and Lesley Robertson)

SLSQ member and lifelong friend Lesley Robertson summed up Nuttall’s musicality and legacy.

“Mozart said of his friend Joseph Haydn, ‘He could amuse, shock, cause laughter and deep emotion like no other.’ The same could be said of Geoff. Geoff was an inspired artist in the truest sense of the word – a searching, enlightened, dedicated and joyful disciple. A musician who listens and strives to reach worlds unimaginable to the rest of us, who seeks to share the journey and the riches of discovery. He was an extraordinary teacher, coach and mentor. His legacy, his impact on chamber music in North America and beyond cannot be overstated.

Geoff’s family established the Geoff Nuttall Memorial Fund to further Dr. Christopher Chen’s cancer research at Stanford University. Geoff was able to continue to live his life as fully as possible under Dr. Chen’s exceptional and caring care. In lieu of flowers, please consider a tax-deductible donation, which can be made online at memorial.stanford.edu by selecting “Other Stanford Designation” and entering “The Geoff Nuttall Memorial Fund” in the “Other” text box, or by check payable to Stanford University with “The Geoff Nuttall Memorial Fund” indicated on the note line, mailed to Development Services, PO Box 20466, Stanford , CA 94309, or by phone at 650-725-4360.

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