ArtsSF: Responding to Debussy, and a Reduz Influx the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance
Week of Jan. 16-23, 2011 - Vol. 13, No. 53
By Paul Hertelendy

Cypress String Quartet Links the New with the Old

SARATOGA---A Debussy-Higdon chamber program drew an unexpected full house at Villa Montalvo on a foggy holiday weekend, leaving ushers scurrying about setting up extra chairs to handle the influx. This was a true redux influx as the Cypress Quartet played a return engagement.

Yes, chamber music is alive and going strong at the breath-taking villa with its palatial grounds and gardens, currently offering a seven-concert program, supplemented by the piano series just concluding.

There is a multiple appeal here. The Bay Area's own Cypress Quartet steps up with its unique and stimulating "Call and Response" pairing of works: Performing an old established work, and alongside it a modern piece composed in response to the latter. On Jan. 16 that meant pairing the Debussy Quartet, Op. 10 with "Impressions" (2003) by the fast-rising Tennessee composer Jennifer Higdon, 49, who last year had the unusual distinction of getting both a Grammy and Pulitzer Prize.

The well-known Debussy got a bold, assertive reading, more grainy than wispy-cloudy, pretty much as you might expect from an American ensemble.

The 34-minute Higdon selection I found immensely absorbing. In the opening "Bright Palette," she opens with a French sound that could have come from one of Ravel's students, then shifts to flamboyant rhythms and exuberance that you might call American (if there even is such a thing or style in the classical realm). There are volatile shifts in intensity, showing that Higdon by now had crossed the Atlantic, westward-bound. After the slow movement with its dominant lower strings, "To the Point" strives toward a musical pointillism with pizzicato---as if Georges Seurat had turned composer---and moves on to a contrarian structure where the stratospheric lead line is given over to the second violin instead of the first. A resolution is effected in the agitated finale, with a rather metallic play miles removed from French delicacy and serenity.

By way of unprogrammed amuse-bouche, the ensemble added some lighter, catchier novelettes by Glazounov.

The Cypress is a vigorous, thirtyish, I'll-try-anything group of fearless wonders who will sometimes even play a traditional program---only it's apt to be the cerebral Beethoven Op. 131 and 135! Formerly in residence at San Jose State Univ., the Cypress foursome now plays all over the place. Villa Montalvo, with its baronial warmth and 100-seat capacity, brings a welcome contrast of old California architecture and new musical thinking whenever Cypress is on site. From the top, the players are Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, Ethan Filner and Jennifer Kloezel. All four contribute to brief discourse on the music to be played, breaking the ice in welcome fashion for listeners unfamiliar with the repertoire.

┬ęPaul Hertelendy 2011
Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish -- and a certain amount of salsa -- for years.