At the Impromptu: One of the Best of the Best

Solares Hill
March 22, 2009
By Harry Schroeder

The Impromptu Concerts, Key West's 37-year-old chamber music series, went back to basics after the saxophone group of a few Sundays ago by bringing in a string group again. This one, the Cypress String Quartet, played works by Mozart, Dvorak and the American Impressionist composer Charles Tomlinson Griffes. Even by the high standards of modem string playing, the group was exceptional.

They had all the usual and essential virtues of quartets: virtuoso technique, accurate phrasing, great control of dynamics and the kind of easy communication that comes with having played together for many years, nowadays 90 concerts a year. Much of the effect of their music depended on their intonation, which was a great deal more brilliant than the so-called "equal temperament" we are used to from pianos.

Equal temperament tuning is a compromise, necessary but with severe disadvantages. In order to get the instrument to play in tune in all 12 keys, some intervals have to be stretched and others compressed. This dulls the sympathetic vibrations of the overtones, which give richness to musical sounds. Since really top-level string players, like the Cypress people, have absolute control of intonation, they are not constrained by the equal temperament compromise, and can adjust their pitches so as to bring out everything the overtones can offer. This group did, and the effect was wonderful.

All of them had great individual sounds (three of them played instruments made by the Cremonese masters) so the union of them was extraordinary. There was an especial richness to the sound of Ethan Filner's viola. Jennifer Kloetzel, on cello, played the Mozart quartet lightly but with strength and center to her sound; in the Griffes and the Dvorak she opened the sound up, to put a strong bottom on some very powerful ensemble playing that was quite startling after the delicacy of the Mozart. Cecily Ward and Tom Stone. on first and second violins had matched sounds; both were perfectly centered, with no mush, so that their vibratos were genuinely expressive.

'Thls was of particular importance in the Mozart, which was more than usually repetitive; from a lesser group it would have been tedious, Agreat deal of Mozart's music depends on great playing - it is either veny beautiful or it's Muzak. The opening chord, given their centered playing and the acoustics in St. Paul's, was breathtaking. The Griffes, which could be roughly described as American Indian program music, was interesting but less than memorable. The Dvorak was a delight. The piece is known as his "American" quartet and was full of simple but distinguished melodies, the result of the influence of "Amencan folk music. It has often seemed to me that Dvorak handled American musical material better than American composers - Copland, and even Gershwin - managed to do. In the first movement there was a passage, played first by a violin and then passed around the group, in the idiom of the hoedown fiddle but played gracefully, in a way no barn-dance fiddler would ever have. It was the perfect relation of high art to low: sophisticated musicianship respectful of the simplicity at the roots.

Both the end of the concen and that of the first set were greeted by standing ovations, more enthusiastic ones than I can remember at these concerts. The Impromptu series gets a smart audience, with good ears, and it knows what it's listening to. I hope this group will be back. They're as good as any we've had.