SJ Mercury News: Cypress Quartet and San Jose Chamber Orchestra unveil compelling new work by Pablo Furman

San Jose Mercury-News
January 11, 2010
By Richard Scheinin

Pablo Furman's new concerto for string quartet and chamber orchestra is titled "Paso del Fuego," which means "Passage of Fire." It is an apt title. To hear this piece is to be carried along a road of blazing colors, through rugged terrain that's virtually sandblasted by rhythm and topped with melodies speaking of beautiful doom. It grabs the gut. It fascinates. It should be performed far and wide.

Furman, a longtime music professor at San Jose State University, has composed an important new work, one of the best I've heard anywhere over the past several seasons. It received its world premiere Saturday at Le Petit Trianon from the Cypress String Quartet (the "soloists" for the concerto) and the San Jose Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Barbara Day Turner. The performers, like the music, were on fire.

An excellent essay about the 35-minute piece by trumpeter and new-music aficionado Stephen Ruppenthal provides important background, spelling out Furman's compositional techniques, dating as far back as the 15th century. But sometimes music speaks on an intuitive level: Listening to "Paso del Fuego," one simply knows that every choice of note, chord and effect has been carefully and rightly made by a composer who is in steady control of his craft.

The cumulative effect is stunning. "Paso" carries the influences of tango and other folkloric forms from Argentina — Furman grew up in Buenos Aires — but without setting off any faux-tangowarning bells. His conception is original: He draws on the austere disposition of Eastern Orthodox hymnody, too, but one doesn't listen to "Paso" and think "liturgy." There's no Arvo Pärt in sight.

Across its five movements, the work is often poised between ripping brutality and ecstatic clarity. The clarity wins out in the end — in every way.

In a piece like this one, less skillful composers might inadvertently bury a quartet of soloists amid thick writing for the string orchestra. Instead, Furman achieves a true balance, a complementary relationship that showcases quartet and orchestra, equally. Throughout the piece, they overlap, but only briefly, with one fading away or hanging as a shivery backdrop — a curtain of iced rain — as its partner emerges to advance new material in preparation for the next transformation.

Largely tonal and in a constant state of transformation, the work has too many highlights to catalog in this space.

But these are a few: the other-worldly string colors and effects, buzzing and swarming in the first movement, "Preludio y coral"; the desolate song of "Triste," the second movement, ravishingly carried by cellist Jennifer Kloetzel; the ostinato-driven dance (which, oddly, took me back to the Mahavishnu Orchestra) of the third movement, "Fantasia del bailarin" — and of the finale, which careened like tango dancers on a fast train moving along the edge of a cliff.

Hats off to the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and the Cypress Quartet, two of the Bay Area's most die-hard advancers of new music. (The Cypress is about to launch its next series of local performances, including the premiere next month of a new work by Elena Ruehr; details at

Saturday's program also included "Trinitas II," a new work by the young Peninsula-based composer Anica Galindo, who is a favorite of Day Turner's. This is a worshipful piece, perhaps influenced by Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," but with a newer cinematic affect. It is gracious and weepingly lyrical, with drenching unison melody in the strings, much of it resting on the firm boughs of the cellos.

The evening began with the Cypress alone on stage, performing Beethoven's late Quartet in F major, Op. 135. The first two movements were somewhat dispassionate, and the group's blended sound was off: too much treble in the mix. But with the hymn-like third movement, the quartet settled down, quietly focused on Beethoven's all-knowing gaze.