Uniquely American

Tulsa World
April 21, 2009
JAMES D. WATTS JR., World Scene Writer

It may have been invented in Austria in the 1700s, but the string quartet is — to hear Tom Stone tell it — a uniquely American way of making music.

"People tend to think of the string quartet as strictly European," said Stone, a violinist with the Cypress String Quartet. "But composers like Haydn were developing the form right around the time that this country was formed, at a time when the concepts of democracy and freedom and the rights of the individual were being closely examined.

"So the string quartet can be seen as a metaphor for some principles of the Enlightenment, which also are the underpinnings of America," he said.

That's one of the ideas Stone and his colleagues in the Cypress String Quartet explore in "Inspired by America," a multimedia work that brings together an original film, with narration by the author of the acclaimed book "The American Soul," and live music performances to examine what it means to be an American.

The quartet will perform this piece Saturday evening in the auditorium at Booker T. Washington High School as the culmination of a three-day residency. The residency is a joint effort of Chamber Music Tulsa and the Barthelmes Conservatory.

The quartet — Stone and his fellow violinist Cecily Ward, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel — will spend Thursday and Friday working with students from elementary school through university.

"Some of the sessions will focus mainly on the 'Inspired by America' program," Stone said, "while others will be regular master classes and practical coaching."

The impetus for "Inspired by America" was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It was such a horrifying, tragic moment for this country," Stone said, "but, to us, that tragedy seemed to continue in the days and weeks that followed, with the rancor that so many people expressed. It was like respect and civility had been tossed out the window.

"We felt we needed to do something, as citizens and artists. We're not the sort to sit around debating politics, but we thought we needed to create a program that would examine what it means to be an American, in a thoughtful and moving way."

The quartet commissioned Emmy and Peabody Award-winner Michael Schwarz to create a film that drew from Jacob Needleman's book "The American Soul."

Meanwhile, the quartet members began digging up music — all of it written by Americans, or at least written in and about America — that would illustrate and expand upon the points being made by the words and images.

"We didn't want the music to be something in the background, but an integral part of the whole," Stone said. "Maybe the way to describe it is that the words and images speak to the mind, and the music speaks to the heart."

That music includes some famous pieces — the slow movement of Barber's String Quartet No. 11, which the composer later adapted into the "Adagio for Strings," and movements from Dvorak's Op. 96 quartet, called the "American," and Charles Ives' String Quartet No. 1.

There is also a piece credited to Benjamin Franklin, as well as music composed by well-regarded modern composers including Jennifer Higdon and Dan Coleman.

Although "Inspired by America" is performed without a pause, Stone said it falls into three basic parts: a look at the ideals that went into creating the unique philosophical construct that is America; meditations on some of the Founding Fathers and other heroes, such as Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass; and finally a consideration of where America might go in the future.

"We're very excited to be bringing this production to Tulsa," Stone said. "We did a concert for Chamber Music Tulsa just days after we debuted 'Inspired by America' in 2007, and the fact that they wanted to take a risk and present this program to Tulsa means a lot to us.

"Tulsa has a great chamber music organization, one that's committed to presenting great chamber music, and we're pleased they think this quartet and this program is worth the risk."