SF Chronicle: The Cypress pairs Tsontakis with Beethoven – SFGate

San Francisco Chronicle
May 01, 2006
Joshua Kosman, Chronicle Music Critic

A few years back, the members of the Cypress String Quartet hatched the splendid idea of pairing a work from the standard repertoire with a commissioned piece specifically inspired by it.

Since then, the "Call and Response" series has spawned new work from such composers as Benjamin Lees and Jennifer Higdon, and Friday's concert at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts brought the world premiere of a luscious, moody quartet by George Tsontakis.

Not that there was general agreement about its inspiration, mind you. The subtitle of Tsontakis' String Quartet No. 5 identifies it as a memorial tribute to the late American composer George Rochberg. Rochberg, who died last year, scandalized the world of contemporary music in 1972 with his String Quartet No. 3, which abandoned serialism for a neo-Romantic revisiting of music by Beethoven and Mahler.

Tsontakis has Beethoven on the brain as well, and the Cypress, concluding its 10th season, paired his new piece with not one but two of Beethoven's late string quartets. The result was a weighty and dense evening, but one that provided the right setting for the new piece.

The Cypress -- violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel -- has been tireless in its educational efforts, visiting countless high schools and middle schools throughout the Bay Area, and the outcome of those endeavors was wonderfully in evidence.

An audience with a large proportion of schoolchildren listened attentively and alertly to a rather daunting program, their comportment shaming that of many a more adult audience I've been part of. Before our eyes and ears, a new generation of music lovers is being superbly well trained.

Tsontakis' 20-minute quartet, which consists of a pair of rhapsodic movements, repaid that attention. His writing is lush and lovingly crafted, with a languorous beauty that is hard to resist, and the tonal harmonies are flecked with well-judged shades of amber.

Hearing the piece after Beethoven's last two string quartets helped underline the similarities -- Tsontakis begins with bare octaves that are a direct cop from Beethoven, and his blend of choralelike textures and floating counterpoint harks back to the expansive slow movements of Beethoven's late period.

The catch is that Beethoven's slow movements tend to occupy the inside of longer works, flanked by more vigorous outer movements. Tsontakis' two slow movements, standing alone, sound naked and unprotected.

The Cypress brought a combination of tenderness and urgency to the music, expertly rendering the piece's delicate weave. The evening began with a rather lumpy rendition of Beethoven's C-Sharp Minor Quartet, Op. 131, then improved with a sharply dramatic account of the F-Major Quartet, Op. 135.

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