Examiner.com: Cypress Quartet bids farewell with representative sampling of repertoire

Source: Examiner.com
June 27, 2016
By Stephen Smoliar

The original members of the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ), violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Paul Wakabayashi, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, first gathered to make music on July 10, 1996. Over the following years the group had only one replacement, when Ethan Filner became the violist. Yesterday afternoon in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater in the Veterans Building, only a few weeks short of twenty years later, the group gathered to give their Farewell Concert. They prepared a program (with encores) that well represented the breadth of their efforts to study and present the string quartet repertoire, including four selections all composed after 2000, three of which were written on commission.

Much of their reputation was established by their knowledgeable command of the full canon of string quartets by Ludwig van Beethoven, making it more than appropriate that Beethoven should lead off that program. Singling out one of these compositions was not easy; but they finally settled on Opus 95 in F minor, to which Beethoven gave the title “Quartetto serioso.” This was not a matter of beginning the event on a somber note but simply a recognition that Opus 95 was the shortest of the sixteen quartets, acknowledging the need to give just as much attention to the other composers on the program.

However, the piece was also representative of Beethoven’s departure from traditional practices that had been established by Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (both of whom had their own ways of departing with the conventions of their times). It was composed in 1810, by which time Beethoven had established his own reputation; but he claimed the pieces was “written for a small circle of connoisseurs,” rather than for public performance. Nevertheless, through both concerts and recording, CSQ has developed a thoroughly accessible account of music that Beethoven thought would be “too much” for a general public; and the “general public” of CSQ audiences has tended more towards enthusiasm, rather than puzzlement. Granted, Opus 95 is filled with intense mood swings, which are then capped off with a quick and rollicking coda to the final movement, whose prankishness seems to blow off all that had preceded. Thus, the value of CSQ's approach has been the clarity with which they delimited this breadth of rhetorical stances matched by fidelity to Beethoven’s “letter of the text.”

To complement beginning the program with Beethoven, CSQ chose to conclude with Claude Debussy’s Opus 10 quartet in G minor. This has its own wide spectrum of emotional dispositions, but it also is based on a highly disciplined economy of thematic material. The lexicon of motifs is impressively spare; but recurrence is always a matter of changing the color, so to speak, of presentation. Thus, while the attentive listener quickly recognizes the familiarity of returning material, (s)he can also appreciate how each return comes in a slightly different guise. CSQ’s sensitivity to these subtleties effectively communicated both the returns themselves and the extent to which each was “the same but not the same.”

Between these familiar composers, CSQ programmed the most recent selections on the program. Each was excerpted from a four-movement quartet; and the overall plan was to present an opening movement by one composer, a second movement by a second, and so on to a final movement by the fourth composer. The composers were, in order of appearance and along with the dates of their respective compositions, Elena Ruehr (2001), Jennifer Higdon (2003), Philippe Hersant (2011), and Benjamin Lees (2005). Only the Ruehr selection, the opening “Clay Flute” movement from her third string quartet, was not written on a CSQ commission.

The result of this “synthesis” was pleasantly effective. No single movement ever felt as if it went on for too long, while the ordering provided a convincing sense of flow to the overall sequence. Each composer had his/her own approaches to both structure and expressiveness, and the CSQ performances established the unique identify and logic of each of the movements. Taken as a whole this amounted to a representative sampling of CSQ’s commitment to new music and its efforts to place those works on the same plane as the more traditional selections in its repertoire.

However, if diversity was part of the “CSQ brand,” they took a somewhat unique approach to their three encores, all of which were by Czech composers. The three composers were presented in chronological order. They began with the “grand old man” of Czech composers, Antonín Dvořák, performing the final movement of his Opus 96 “American” quartet in F major. This was followed by the Barcarolle movement, one of the two movements to survive from Josef Suk’s first effort at a string quartet in 1888. Suk was one of Dvořák’s favorite pupils, and he later married Dvořák’s daughter Otilie. The final composer in the encore section was Erwin Schulhoff, who also came to Dvořák’s attention during his time at the Prague Conservatory, which he entered at the age of ten. However, the Schulhoff selection, the Tango movement from his five pieces for string quartet, was composed long after he left his conservatory studies and was dedicated to Darius Milhaud. This made for a spirited conclusion to a highly satisfying, if also a bit on the bittersweet side, afternoon.