Geoff Nuttall, a charismatic musician who played boldly as the first violinist of the acclaimed St. Lawrence String Quartet for more than three decades, and who was widely admired as the leader of the chamber music series at 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 at the Banff International String Quartet Competition in Canada in 1992, they came to prominence quickly and distinctively, with Mr. Nuttall first among the 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 New York Times after its New York debut at the 92nd Street Y in 1992. “The performance had a dangerous, unchecked edge,” Mr. Ross reflected on a performance of Berg, “I have never heard anything quite like it. In the future, this quartet should make its presence felt.”
The St. Lawrence did so. Its repertoire was individual, even quirky, focusing as strongly on new 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 same intensity as those by Shostakovich, Schumann and Tchaikovsky that it released on the EMI label. (Mr. Adams wrote the St. Lawrence two quartets as well as the quartet-and-orchestra “Absolute Jest.”)
If the quartet’s palpable commitment remained characteristic — even as the violinists Scott St. John and Owen Dalby and the cellist Christopher Costanza replaced outgoing members — that was because its brio seemed to 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 rest of the group admits,” Mr. Ross wrote in The New Yorker in 2001. “His phrasing often upsets the central pulse of a movement, and the others either follow his lead or scramble to restore rhythmic order. As a result, despite the rigorous discipline of the quartet’s rehearsal process, many passages sound riotously improvised.”
Mr. Nuttall’s electrifying ability to engage flowed from his deep desire to communicate even at the expense of other, blandly technical virtues, and he was fully aware of the risks of failure; indeed, he welcomed them as imperative to a good performance.
Mr. Nuttall, a vinyl collector whose living room held more 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 want to be unified and blended together. And I remember being inspired by ‘Nashville Skyline,’ the Bob Dylan record. He does a duet with Johnny Cash. It’s such a great record, and they’re not together at all. They’re totally doing their own thing, but it’s totally unified and really powerful at the same time.”
“And that was a great lesson on ensemble playing,” he continued. “Because if each one of the duet is doing their own thing in a really committed and convincing way, even if you’re saying the same thing, which they were in that case, it can 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, at the University of Toronto, the school from which he graduated.
With the St. Lawrence, Mr. Nuttall was later in residence at the Juilliard School, Yale University, and the Hartt School of Music. He and his colleagues joined the faculty 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 overlooked — as much a core of their campus activities as of their concert programs.
“Arrestingly dynamic teamsmanship among the four players allowed every gesture to be for the moment and every 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 rather 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 “active participation, active listening, following the game.”
He had a rare talent for inspiring exactly that with his spirited talks during concerts about what made music worth getting fully involved with. That, along with his eclectic taste in repertoire, made him the ideal frontman to succeed Charles Wadsworth as the director and host of the early-summer Spoleto chamber series in Charleston, S.C., in 2009.
The St. Lawrence played regularly at Spoleto from 1995, and for Mr. Nuttall, South Carolina became a home away from his Bay Area home.
He married Livia Sohn, another violinist, in a Charleston garden in 2000. She survives him along with their two sons, Jack and Ellis, his mother, and his sister, Jenny Nuttall.
“It was an inspired choice,” Johanna Keller wrote of the Spoleto appointment in The New York Times in 2013. “Mr. Nuttall turns out 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 did not particularly mind the comparison.
“Whether you’re 7 years old and have never seen a violin up close or you’re an expert with a doctorate in music, I want you to leave 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 understand in order to feel moved.”