Swan song: Anchorage programs will be among the last for acclaimed Cypress String Quartet

Source: Alaska Dispatch News
February 4, 2016
Mike Dunham

When Anchorage lovers of chamber music hear the two sextets by Johannes Brahms this weekend, they’ll be getting a sneak preview. Most of the performers will reunite to record the pair of masterworks later this spring.

The Cypress String Quartet has made a reputation over the past 20 years with fine playing and cutting-edge commissions; they’ve logged thousands of concerts around the world and produced at least 15 albums. The extra cellist in both the Anchorage performance and the recording will be Zuill Bailey, the director of the Alaska Classics chamber music series and the Sitka Summer Music Festival. Former festival director Paul Rosenthal will play the additional viola part in Anchorage. (It will go to Barry Shifman when the pieces are recorded in an upcoming live performance.)

But the Alaska audience will also be hearing the end of an era. The Cypress String Quartet has announced that it will disband in June after presenting two complete cycles of the Beethoven quartets, one in San Francisco and one in Sitka.

“We’ve been playing together for 20 years,” said violinist Tom Stone. “We decided it was time to check in and see whether we wanted to do this for another 20 years." In the course of the examination, a consensus was reached to end the quartet.

The decision to break up wasn’t due to artistic or personality differences, Stone said, but more from a desire to explore individual opportunities. “We realized we were at a point where we could still pursue a second stage in our careers,” he said.

The way the quartet came together was strikingly different from how most quartets are formed, said cellist Jennifer Kloetzel. (“Rhymes with ‘pretzel.’”)

“Most groups are put together in school by a professor or coach who says, ‘You four sound good with each other. You should be a quartet,’” she said. “In this case Tom and Cecily (Ward, violinist) were studying under the same teacher. They were playing a lot of chamber music and had an idea for a quartet based in San Francisco. But they couldn’t find the other two members. So they started calling everyone they knew, looking for a violist and a cellist, but making sure everyone knew that they didn’t have any jobs lined up and no guarantees of future work.”

Kloetzel was working as freelance musician in New York when a pianist friend told her about the opening. Since she couldn’t get to California, they flew east to play a concert with her. The trip coincided with a storm that left them snowed in for four days. They talked about and played music, and Kloetzel decided to relocate to join them.

“We were rehearsing six hours a day,” she said. “But there weren’t a lot of job offers. Our first paid concert was on a cruise ship in San Francisco Bay. We had a friend with a coffee shop and put on occasional concerts there.”

The players might have expanded their options by taking solo assignments or filling in for regular members of Bay Area orchestras. But they’d made a promise to one another that none of them would accept outside work.

“So we ate a lot of peanut butter and crafted our sound,” Kloetzel continued. “After about five years the phone calls started coming more frequently."

By that time the original violist had left, replaced by Ethan Filner, who has remained with the group.

What kept the band from falling apart during the lean years was a shared sense of mission, Stone said. “I call it a meeting of the minds, a shared vision around what chamber music could do for a community, the role it can play in people’s lives. And very, very idealistic.”

Among other things, the group was committed to championing new music, performing in alternative venues and reaching out to young audiences.

The last objective has been particularly rewarding, Kloetzel said. “It’s wonderful when we go into schools to see how young people love chamber music, even when they don’t know anything about it. It’s given me a lot of hope.”

“Our goal is to touch one person at a time,” Stone said. “To touch them inside. Chamber music is like when someone cooks for you with love as opposed to what you get at a big chain restaurant.”

He recalled a letter from a woman who said she had been reluctant to attend a concert, but found herself transformed by it. She wrote a letter to the quartet saying, “I didn’t know music could do this for me.”

The Cypress String Quartet is also known for what it’s been able to do for composers. “We don’t just commission a piece and play it,” said Kloetzel. “We play it again and again and we record it and put it out there for the world.”

Among the people who have written music for them are Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, whose “Blue Cathedral” was performed by the Anchorage Symphony last Saturday. The quartet has also commissioned work from Kevin Puts, the late Benjamin Lees and French composer Philippe Hersant, among others.

Several of these commissioned works have been released on CDs. The quartet has also established itself in traditional repertoire, getting particular praise for their recordings of the middle Beethoven quartets, Schubert and Dvorak, who wrote a set of songs for string quartet, “Cypresses,” from which the group takes its name.

Stone and Kloetzel arrived in Anchorage on Monday and have been presenting workshops and workshops in schools and elsewhere. Their itinerary has ranged from an ad hoc program at a senior center to conducting a class on the business aspect of music at UAA. In addition, Stone made time to ski at Alyeska Resort. He called that “a dream come true.”

But he also said he was a little jealous of his colleagues Ward and Filner, who were giving concerts in Barrow, Nuiqsut and Prudhoe Bay with Bailey while he and Kloetzel were in Anchorage.

“We want to bring music to as many places as possible,” Kloetzel said. “The nice thing about a string quartet is that it’s flexible and very portable.”

In May the Cypress String Quartet will begin their valedictory lap in earnest. They’ll perform all 16 Beethoven quartets in different locations around San Francisco, including parks, soup kitchens and hospitals.

“We’re calling it ‘Beethoven in the City,’” said Stone. “It’ll be something of a pop-up affair.”

Then in June they will repeat the complete Beethoven cycle at the Sitka Summer Music Festival. Their final recordings of the quartets, the early ones, will be released after that, to finish off the series. The Brahms sextets with Bailey will be released later this year and, in 2017, a recording of work by contemporary composer Elena Ruehr.

On June 26, a few days after they leave Sitka, they’ll give what’s billed as their final live performance at San Francisco’s War Memorial Building. The group is still trying to figure out what will be on that program. “Right now it will run about seven hours long,” said Kloetzel.

If nothing else, it’s good to go out at the top of your game, Stone said. “We’re still improving. We’re better this year than we were last year. But how long can you keep that up?

“We didn’t want to wake up 10 years from now and realize our life goals and vision had changed.”