Cypress String Quartet to perform late works of Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok

Kansas City Star
Sunday, October 4, 2009

The San Francisco-based Cypress String Quartet performs Saturday at UMKC's White Recital Hall. The quartet members are (from left) Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, Jennifer Kloetzel and Ethan Filner.

Sometimes, it makes sense to start at the beginning. Yet when the Cypress String Quartet takes the stage here on Saturday, it’s going straight to the end.

The program, that is, includes some of the last — and best — music written by three great and productive composers: Mozart, Beethoven and Bartok.

"These composers were at the height of their creative powers," Jennifer Kloetzel, the Cypress cellist, said of her group's choice of material.

Mozart's Quartet in D Major was one of the last he wrote in that form. Bartok's String Quartet No. 6 was his last and it came, in late 1939, as World War II was beginning and as the Hungarian composer subsequently hit a musical dry spell a few years before his death.

As for Beethoven, his String Quartet in F Major, Opus 135, was the very last whole piece of his formidable career and one of the five late quartets that, as a group, are often considered to be the best, most emotionally complex music he ever wrote.

As the Cypress players suggest in the liner notes (remember those?) to their sumptuous new recording, the chance to play Beethoven's late quartets was the glue that bonded the four musicians 13 years ago in San Francisco.

"We could not imagine a meaningful life without them," they write.

Released in August, the first volume of Cypress' late Beethoven project includes the quartet it will play here and the Quartet in C-Sharp Minor, Opus 131.

All told, it's a stirring production filled with somber introspection, vivid heartbreak, playful dance and gentle humor.

In less than 30 minutes of the last quartet, Opus 135, Beethoven encapsulated a lifetime, said Tom Stone, Cypress' violinist.

"You travel through a whole world of feelings and emotions –– it's tremendous," he said.

The quartet, based in San Francisco, is well-known for bringing fresh sounds to classic chamber music repertoire and connecting with audiences. Members of the quartet, which was formed in 1996, are Stone, Kloetzel, Cecily Ward and Ethan Filner.

They are making two area stops this month (and a few more elsewhere in Missouri and Kansas). In addition to Saturday's performance at the University of Missouri-Kansas City's White Recital Hall, on Oct. 28 they will return to the Lied Center in Lawrence with a program dedicated to Felix Mendelssohn, whose 200th birthday anniversary is being celebrated this year.

Included on that bill will be a new work commissioned from composer Kevin Puts.

It is inspired both by Mendelssohn's first string quartet and Beethoven's last — Puts' title, "Lento Assai," comes from the latter's third movement.

"It's so beautiful," Stone said.

The Cypress has become well-known for its "Call and Response" series of commissions in which contemporary composers are asked to write in reaction to great works of the past.

Chen Yi, of the UMKC Conservatory of Music, is writing a piece for the Cypress, a work that encompasses not only the string players but a children's chorus and multimedia, Kloetzel said.

The quartet has an especially warm sound on recordings and has a reputation for playing unlike most other quartets.

"We have been spending years thinking about what sound means to us," Stone said. "It's something that started at the beginning, when we were playing Bach chorales together.

"Our sonority is otherworldly. That's something we work on as a matter of craft every single day. It's not just four individuals playing at the same time, it's how these four voices work together. We're constantly trying to hone that."

Most quartets organize harmony around the first violin, which serves as the traditional leader in a foursome setting. The Cypress builds harmony from the bottom, Kloetzel said, which, of course, would be her cello, producer generally of the lowest tones in the group.

Stone and Kloetzel credited their first violinist, Ward, with being an exceptional listener who has the quartet's collective sound as her mission.

Ward also produced the new disc, so she is very much responsible for the Cypress sound, Kloetzel said.

In essence, what you hear on disc is the real Cypress, Kloetzel said, not something imposed on the group by a label or an outside producer.

That bodes well when it comes to Beethoven's last statement, the Opus 135, which he composed in 1826, the year before his death.

The players are in complete control while navigating Beethoven's torqued and challenging turf.

"What astonishes me," Stone said, "is he manages to combine emotions that don't belong together. It's not only that there's one section that's ecstatic and the next sorrowful. He'll do both at the same time. And you get this sense of the divine, of whatever that means to people."

The last movement of the Beethoven quartet, titled (in translation) "The Difficult Resolution," included notations that musicians and musicologists have puzzled over for nearly two centuries. One section is marked "Muss es sein" (or Must it be?), another "Es muss sein" (It must be).

"It's a great riddle of music history," Stone said. "A lot of people think he was just pondering mortality and human suffering. My favorite theory is that Beethoven's laughing in his grave. He was just having fun."


•The Cypress String Quartet plays music by Mozart, Bartok and Beethoven at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at UMKC’s White Recital Hall. Ticket information: 816-235-6222 or

•The Cypress also will play at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Lied Center in Lawrence. That program will include quartets by Mendelssohn and Beethoven (Opus 135) and the world premiere of Kevin Puts’ “Lento Assai.” Information: 785-864-2787 or


The Cypress String Quartet has just released “Beethoven Late Quartets, Vol. 1.” Find audio samples of that and other recordings at its Web site, www.cypress

Steve Paul, senior writer and editor, 816-234-4762, Follow me at