Celebrating the end of a run…
After 20 years of power and finesse, the Cypress String Quartet announced that they will be retiring as a group at the end of this season. That announcement came at their final “Call and Response” concert last Friday, March 11 at San Francisco’s Herbst Theater.
This quartet, internationally famed for their depth and rich soundscape, is also locally known for their generosity to Bay Area students, and yearly perform in over a dozen schools to give wing to the dreams of youth. After a month of school visits, they bus those students into San Francisco for a yearly concert that includes a World Premiere, and have been doing that for the last 17 years.
Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel spoke about their Call and Response commissioning program last week to students at the SF Community Music Center. “When we started this 17 years ago, we were thinking of one question: what inspires composers?…This is our 20th anniversary we decided to celebrate it with Beethoven. We were looking at the first quartet Beethoven wrote, in F major, and the last quartet, also in F major. There were 26 or 28 years in between those two, but we think he was grappling with the same ideas, and we’re calling it comedy and tragedy.”
The four played snippets from the first movement, bouncy in a civilized sort of way but with a hint of a young man’s swagger, and then contrasted that with the slow and tender Lento, which Kloetzel informed us was meant to recreate the death scene from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. “The second movement was clearly tragedy, wasn’t it?” she asked the students. “Can you hear the hope when she wakes and realizes that it worked, that she wasn’t dead? And then she sees Romeo lying, but he’s lying too still. And can you tell when she takes his dagger and dies?…Yes! The long silence after those sharp chords… All music is about love or loss.”
They played that scene there and again at Herbst, showing a close rapport with each other for intense unisons, along with a sensitivity to Beethoven’s nuanced writing. Kloetzel leaned back and anchored them with slow notes, while violinist Tom Stone looked as much at the others as his own music, binding each in synchrony. First violinist Cecily Ward drew high phrases over a low murmur, and violist Ethan Filner held the center. In other words, they totally poured themselves into the music and the result was gripping. Rather than passively listen to music, we were brought into Beethoven’s fierce circle of thoughts.
For their “Response” partner they turned to Dan Coleman, the composer who wrote their first commission 17 years ago, and invited him to write something in response to Beethoven. A bit of a tall order! His String Quartet No. 3, together, as the river, was the surprising result.
“This quartet is an exploration of every pair and trio,” said Cecily Ward. “In fact, you don’t get to hear all of us together until two thirds of the piece is over.” She described his love of jazz and Stravinsky, along with a penchant for the clever – this quartet was written without any minor thirds. “That is like a painter who decides not to use blue in a landscape,” she explained. “Oh, and it’s also based on a poem about a couple breaking up.”
Maybe that last morsel was “tmi,” as it was all I could think of. Ward and Stone began with a long duet, the two violins not so much harmonizing as trying to finish each other’s sentences. Like a couple in a rut, the conversation felt interruptive rather than supportive, a sharing of rhythms and chores. I started to feel bad for this “couple” who once dreamed a path, but now sounded whiney.
Then cello joined, sometimes adopting their material and sometimes not, and at a languorous pace. When Stone dropped out, the two turned forceful, almost hurling notes at each other in a language reactive and self-absorbed. Violist Filner entered, and their harmonies turned sweeter to tease the air, one of the high points of this dramatic work. One could hear jazz intervals and the pellucid harmonies of Stravinsky’s neoclassical experiments, and there was a fine-boned sense of structure to go with the big dramatics.
Stone’s sumptuous duets with Filner and then Kloetzel, and the breath-like harmonies at the end, were other high points in this difficult work. Surprisingly, one could indeed think of Beethoven here, as was proper, because they finished the night with his mercurial String Quartet No. 16.
This truly was a mature composer’s bite and love, his laughter at mortality, his deep, deep sadness and then a flinging wide of the curtains to rejoice in a new day. The Cypress made it all effortless with acute timing and silvered runs, then delivered one of the great Adagios of the literature. I was surrounded by students, and they were at times restless, but one could hear a pin drop during that long lament, and even a sniffle or two.
As a thank you from the City, Renee Hayes, Associate Director of the SF Grants for the Arts, read a proclamation that March 11 was “Cypress Quartet Day.” A second accolade was the sight of students asking the musicians to sign their programs.
One can hear this quartet again May 13 at Berkeley’s Maybeck Studio (a cozy place for salons – and it sells out fast), and then they disband for good after their June 26 final concert in Herbst’s Green Room. More info at cypressquartet.com.
Photo of the Cypress quartet, from left, Tom Stone, Ethan Filner, Cecily Ward and Jennifer Kloetzel; photo by Gregory Goode.