SJ Mercury News: Cypress String Quartet revels in Ravel

Source: San Jose Mercury News
February 9, 2012
By Richard Scheinin

Consider two string quartets, locally based and with loyal followings, each in the midst of an important anniversary season (read big round number), and each performing a very French-inspired program, calling upon the musicians' mastery of color, texture and the like. We are talking about the Cypress String Quartet (in its 15th season) and the Alexander String Quartet (in its 30th), whose weekend concerts were worlds apart, in the end.

Let's start with the Cypress, whose Friday-night program was way more intimate and less ballyhooed and -- well, let's just say it -- more satisfying than the Alexander's bigger, star-studded event. Cypress played in the tiniest of venues: the 57-seat Pearson Theatre inside the headquarters of Meyer Sound Laboratories, the high-end audio technology mecca in Berkeley. This salon-size room is like a mini-Walt Disney Concert Hall, with vivid sound and an unforgiving acoustic in which no stray or errant noise goes unnoticed.

Performing Ravel's String Quartet in F major, the Cypress was almost unnervingly accurate, with richly sensuous results. The first movement created gauzy spectral effects, as if light were falling on folds of soft fabric. In the second, famously filled with pizzicato (plucked, rather than bowed) effects, the quartet sounded like a magic string band. In the third, one could almost see the oscillations of fireflies, and sense the hot quickening of summer air.

Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, whose sound is intensely dark and rich, was the fulcrum. But each of the group's members -- the others are violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone and violist Ethan Filner -- was fully blended through this excellent ensemble performance, which felt highly attuned to Ravel and his epoch. Over the past few years, the Cypress has at times seemed overly meticulous in performance; the result was too many trees and not enough forest. Here, the group created a unified and organic sound, pushing this member of the audience into the sort of deep-listening space that one only hopes to visit when attending a concert.

Almost as good as Ravel was the group's rendering of Ervin Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet, delicious and sarcastic little dances composed in 1923. One could hear how the Czech composer -- who died from tuberculosis in a concentration camp in 1942, his music then ignored for decades -- built upon Ravel, in a sense, compacting colors and introducing new textural challenges. The first movement, spoofing a Viennese waltz, was punchy and muscular. The second, a serenade, was delivered like a ghostly march from the other side of the veil.

Based in San Francisco, and enjoying a devoted South Bay following thanks to its past residencies at San Jose State University and the Montalvo Arts Center, the Cypress regularly commissions new works. In 2003, Jennifer Higdon composed "Impressions" for the quartet; it's a response, literally, to the quartets of Ravel and Debussy. But Friday's performance often felt harsh and out of kilter, without much grace -- and with too much muddiness in Higdon's thickly bowed and tightly squeezed textures. It made for an inelegant ending to an otherwise elegant program.

The full article, published online with the headline "A Tale of Two String Quartets" is availble here.
The article appeared in print with the headline "Cypress String Quartet revels in Ravel"