Peninsula Review: Cypress String Quartet / Chamber Music Monterey Bay

Peninsula Review
Posted: Apr 18, 2010
By Lyn Bronson

The Cypress String Quartet rounded off Chamber Music Monterey Bay's 2009-2010 season last night at Sunset Center with strong performances of string quartets by Mendelssohn and Beethoven, plus the performance of a new quartet by a young composer we are hearing with increasing frequency, Kevin Puts.

Last night's program centered on the new 12-minute work for string quartet by Kevin Puts, Lento Assai. The program notes told us that “Lento Assai was commissioned as part of the Cypress String Quartet's ongoing 'Call & Response Project', in which new composers write works inspired by timeless masterpieces of the string quartet repertoire." The two works presented to Puts for his study and inspiration were Mendelssohn's String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, and Beethoven's last work for the string quartet genre, the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135.

There was considerable relevancy attached to this programming, for Mendelssohn's String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 13, reflects his reverence for the late Beethoven quartets, often regarded as inscrutable by audiences in Vienna at this time. Additionally, Mendelssohn in this work quotes in two of the four movements themes from a tender love song he had written a few months before the quartet, Die Frage ("The Question"). Mendelssohn's song asks the question, Ist es wahr ("Is it true?), an enigmatic, and potentially a profound question. Similarly, Beethoven had sent to his publisher a note accompanying the score of Op 135, and had written the motto: "The difficult decision: Must it be?" Whatever this enigmatic question means, Beethoven provided a similarly enigmatic answer, "It must be. It must be!"

Kevin Puts weaves into the musical texture of Lento Assai a seminal three-note motif that questions and finally answers this question with a triumphant resolution, that "yes, it must be, after al" The work began with a sustained elegy-like dirge with legato close ensemble interwoven with sensuous and comforting tonalities. Partway through the piece there was a startlingly unexpected five second silence interrupting the legato flow of the ensemble, as though the composer wanted us to hear the beauty, intensity and challenge of silence itself. After a middle section with disturbingly clashing dissonances and agitated rhythms, the work winds down to the mood of the beginning. Lento Assai is a powerful and attractive work that we look forward to hearing on many occasions again.

The remaining works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven received lovely idiomatic performances. As familiar as these works are, the freshness and vigor of the playing we heard on this occasion brought new life and meaning to them. The players of the Cypress String Quartet, violinists Cecily Ward & Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, have many fine qualities. They are young, attractive, superbly trained, and play with a naturalness that never detracts from the music itself.

There was one encore, the finale movement from Dvořák’s American String Quartet, Op. 91. To hear Dvořák at the end of the concert was like a magnificent and exquisite sorbet cleansing the palette after a sumptuous meal.