Relationship Builders

American Ensemble
January/February 2010

Cypress, L to R: Violist Ethan Filner, Violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel

When we spoke to Jennifer Kloetzl, cellist of the Cypress String Quartet, she and her colleagues were ensconced at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. Small surprise there: the San Francisco-based quartet spends about a third of its time on the road. But the musicians' work on tour goes far beyond the 80 or so concerts they give annually. The October 1 Lebanon Valley convert, for example, was planned as the culmination of two and a half days of activity - masterclasses in quartet playing, individual-instrument classes, coaching sessions, even a seminar in the business of music.

"It isn't as satisfying to go to a city, then move on and go to the next city," Kloetzel says. It's more satisfying to go into the community and get to know the people, and then play. When you do this year after year, you develop relationships with people. And a lot of what we do is about relationships."

None of this is haphazard: the quartet has dedicated itself to supplementing its music-making with a range of outreach and educational projects. For instance: Inspired by America, a multimedia show tailored for schools. Based on the writings of philosopher Jacob Needleman, it intersperses film clips and photographs with performances of excerpts from American quartets, ranging from Dvořák's "American" Quartet to Jennifer Higdon's Impressions. "It's all about getting people in to hear the music," says Kloetzel.

Another ongoing project is Call and Response - a series of commissions, one every year since 2000, with each new work a "response" to a favorite repertory piece. The 2009 commission, Lento Assai, was composer Kevin Puts's response to the slow movement of Beethoven's Op. 135; in this year's commission, Elena Ruehr looks at the ways words can inspire music, as in Schubert's . her own String Quartet No. 5 takes as its starting point Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto.

The Cypress puts together programs grouping its Call and Response commissions with the works that inspired them; it will present its 2010 program in a group of area schools before the formal premier at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre on February 26. Outreach efforts like this are at the core of the group's identity. "People are always complaining that concert audiences are dying, but it's partly because we don't spend the time to get younger people excited," says Kloetzel.

In 2003, the Cypress incorporated as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It now has two full-tim administrative staffers - an executive director and a director of administration and education - along with a number of consultants. This structure allows the Cypress to operate as more than just a musical ensemble, but a complex performing and educational operation. It also frees the players to focus on purely musical endeavors - such as their recordings of the late Beethoven quartets, the first volume of which was released last summer.

"Our model is to change how classical musical can be represented out there," says Kloetzel. "But it all comes back to playing the music we want to play."