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.
“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,” the SLSQ wrote in a joint statement.
Nuttall was an esteemed faculty member of the Department of Music, serving as an artist-in-residence with the SLSQ since 1998. Since his arrival, dozens of violin students have studied under him in private lessons. As part of the SLSQ, Nuttall also directed the department’s robust chamber music program, serving as a coach and mentor for student musicians of all disciplines and instrumental focuses.
Many knew him for his performances with the SLSQ, ranging from the frequent “Sundays with the St. Lawrence” concerts for Stanford Live to festival appearances around the nation. The ensemble’s love for Haydn earned them a feature in PBS’s “Great Performances” series in 2020, in which they discussed his life and music. Their recording of contemporary composer Osvaldo Golijov’s “Yiddishbbuk” earned them two Grammy nominations in 2002.
Known for his goofy pre-performance banter, Nuttall impressed listeners with dynamic virtuosity and effortless pedagogy. The New York Times dubbed him the “Jon Stewart of chamber music,” adding that he “established a new style of presentation that juxtaposes the ridiculous with the sublime, [delved] into serious musicology and casually [used] technology. In short, he [was] subtly redefining what a chamber music concert can be.”
Department of Music Chair Stephen Hinton recalled Nuttall’s legacy: “Geoff, the ‘primus inter pares’ of the [SLSQ], will be remembered for his indomitable spirit as well as for his far-reaching impact on musical life. Not only was he a brilliant, inspired musician; he was also a great colleague and a dear friend.”
Born and raised in Texas, Nuttall first picked up a violin at the age of eight. 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 had met as a teenager in the National Youth Orchestra of Canada. The quartet soon garnered international acclaim, earning recognition at the Banff International String Quartet Competition and the Young Concert Artist Auditions. Before settling at 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 the director of chamber music at the Spoleto Festival USA, one of the nation’s major performing arts festivals. Under his tenure, the festival hosted more than 30 chamber music concerts each year, attracting upwards of 15,000 attendees.
The Spoleto Festival wrote in a press statement: “In his final days, his wife, the renowned violinist Livia Sohn … asked Nuttall if he had any unfulfilled aspirations on his bucket list. With his characteristic humor and grace, Nuttall replied, ‘my life has been my bucket list.’” Nuttall died 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.
Fellow SLSQ member and lifelong friend Lesley Robertson summarized Nuttall’s musicianship and legacy.
“Mozart famously said of his friend Joseph Haydn, ‘He could amuse, shock, arouse laughter and deep emotion as no other.’ The same could be said of Geoff. Geoff was an inspired artist in the truest sense — a seeking, enlightened, devoted, joyful disciple. A musician who hears and strives to reach worlds unimagined by the rest of us, who seeks to share the voyage and 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 has created The Geoff Nuttall Memorial Fund to advance Dr. Christopher Chen’s cancer research at Stanford University. Geoff was able to continue living his life as fully as possible under the outstanding and thoughtful care of Dr. Chen. 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 memo line, mailed to Development Services, P.O. Box 20466, Stanford, CA 94309, or by phone at 650-725-4360.