Berkeley Daily Planet: A Moving Farewell

Source: Berkeley Daily Planet
June 29, 2016
By James Roy MacBean

On Sunday, June 26, at 3:00 in the afternoon, with all the pandemonium of Gay Pride celebrations going on outside in the Civic Center, the Cypress String Quartet performed their Farewell Concert in the newly opened Taube Atrium Theatre of San Francisco’s War Memorial Building. After twenty years of playing together (fifteen years with Ethan Filner as violist), the Cypress String Quartet, composed of Cecily Ward and Tom Stone on violin, Jennifer Kloetzel on cello, and Ethan Filner on viola), is now disbanding to allow each member to pursue other musical endeavors. During their twenty-year run, the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet has made many recordings, including the complete Beethoven String Quartets, and has been internationally recognized as one of the very best string quartets in the world. They have also carried out an extensive outreach program to bring classical music into classrooms at all levels, from inner city elementary schools in San Jose to high schools and universities throughout the Bay Area. The Cypress Quartet also spent two full weeks in May of this year performing the complete Beethoven String Quartets in a free series of public concerts at outdoor venues throughout all neighborhoods of San Francisco. If they are now disbanding, we can only be grateful, not only for twenty years of wonderful music-making, but also for the way the Cypress Quartet has gone out with a bang, sharing with us all their joy in music-making.

At their Farewell Concert, the Cypress Quartet opened the program with Beethoven’s String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95, which Beethoven called “Quartetto Serioso”. As Cecily Ward said in announcing this work, the Op. 95 occupies a unique place among Beethoven’s string quartets, because it is the last of the so-called Middle period and foreshadows the work to come in the Late period. Ward added that because the Op. 95 is the shortest of Beethoven’s string quartets, this gave the Cypress Quartet the opportunity to add more contemporary works, including some they commissioned, to the Farewell Concert’s program.

Beethoven’s Op. 95 opens with all four instruments issuing bold phrases, almost like emotional outbursts. The key of f minor, for Beethoven, is associated with drama and defiance, and indeed this quartet is full of both, as the composer broke new ground with sudden meter changes, harmonic complications, unexpected moments of silence, and a fugue (one of many to come in Beethoven’s Late works). After a turbulent first movement, the second, marked Allegretto ma non troppo, opens with a tender phrase from the cello and continues in a tender mood throughout. The third movement, marked Allegro assai vivace ma serioso, is this work’s best-known movement, and it is full of vigor and rhythmic chances. The final movement contains three sub-sections: the first a slow Larghetto; the second an Allegretto agitato, and the third, surprisingly in such a ‘serious’ work, is a brief Allegro that has the flavor of a comic-opera ending. As always, the Cypress String Quartet dispatched this Beethoven quartet with great cohesion and truly expressive playing.

Next on the program were excerpts from contemporary works: the “Clay Flute” movement from Elena Ruehr’s Third String Quartet (2001), the “Quiet Art” movement from Jennifer Higdon’s Impressions Quartet (2003), the Fantaisie from Philippe Hersant’s Quatuor à Cordes No. 3 (2011), and the “Unhurried” movement from Benjamin Lees’ String Quartet No. 6 (2005). All but the first of these works were commissioned by the Cypress Quartet, which during their 20 years together commissioned at least two-dozen works (not, I apologize, the 640 I erroneously cited in my article of May 15, 2016). Incidentally, in her opening remarks, Cecily Ward noted that composer Dan Coleman was in the audience, asked him to stand and take a bow, and called him “our Beethoven.” All three of Coleman’s String Quartets were commissioned by Cypress Quartet. (See my review of the Cypress Quartet performing Coleman’s Third String Quartet in my article of May 15, 2016.) Of the brief excerpts performed in this Farewell Concert, the “Clay Flute” movement from Ruehr’s Third Quartet stood out for its ability to fashion interesting music from only five notes. Hersant’s “Fantaisie” opened with a repeated chimes motive that reminded me of Marin Marais’s 17th century Les Sonneries de Ste. Geneviève; and the “Unhurried” movement from Benjamin Lees featured a scherzo with agitated ensemble spasms and pizzicato from the violins. Higdon’s “Quiet Art” from her Impressions Quartet offered warmed-over tributes to Debussy and Ravel without establishing much in the way of original music.

After intermission the Cypress Quartet performed Claude Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10. This work, as Jennifer Kloetzel mentioned in her Program Notes, is amazingly rich in rhythm, harmony, and color. As performed by the Cypress Quartet, this work received a tightly cohesive interpretation. The first movement, marked Animé et très décidé, was especially precise, while the second movement offered a shimmering gossamer texture. The third movement was sweet and soft, while the finale was increasingly animated, ending in a passionate closing statement.

As encores, Cypress Quartet turned to Czech composers, playing the finale from Antonin Dvořák’s “American” Quartet, Joseph Suk’s “Barcarolle,” and Erwin Schulhoff’s “Tango.” It was an emotional farewell, for audience and performers alike, as the Cypress String Quartet brought to a close their illustrious twenty-year tenure among the world’s finest string quartets.