Cypress Quartet plays flawless classical music on the strings

St. Louis Examiner
November 1, 2009
By Bill Townsend

About 75 people got a post-Halloween treat Sunday afternoon at the Touhill Performing Arts Center on the campus of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The world-renowned Cypress String Quartet performed a heartfelt, flawless concert of three works, and, before each piece, they took the time to explain both the music they played and the processes they go through in preparing to play.

In short, it was an hour and 45 minutes of learning and entertainment, well-presented by an industrious, gifted foursome who are welcome back to these environs any time. 

The quartet, named after a love cycle of 12 string quartets by Antonin Dvorak, lovingly played two of the greatest chamber pieces ever created for strings, plus a new, one-movement quartet inspired by the other two on the program from the early 19th century.

The first work, the 1827 Op. 13 in A Minor by Felix Mendelssohn, was itself inspired by the third quartet on the program, Beethoven's final major work.

The Mendelssohn includes a three-note musical question that the Beethoven also asks, using slightly different words. Felix's motive (also in the title) states, "Is it true," while Ludwig's is, "Must it be."

Mendelssohn, who adored Beethoven, includes tension in the first movement that the master would have approved of, plus sweetness and light in subsequent movements that speak to the style of Felix, just 18 when he composed this work and who would live just 20 more years.

The middle, meditative work was composed by a St. Louisan, Kevin Puts, a gifted young man born in 1972. While the work by the giants of music stirred me greatly, I confess that young Kevin's work, "Lento Assai" (very slow), moved me the most.

It premiered earlier this year and is part of the Cypress Quartet's program of inspiring living composers to hear masterworks and then compose their own music.

Puts named his composition after the slow movement of Beethoven's quartet. He tied his piece together neatly with four simple, soothing notes introduced by the viola (an instrument Beethoven played), which was joined by one violin, then another, and finally by the cello.

In between, the bows of the players seemed to move in slow motion as their prayerful sounds wafted through the hall. 

After intermission we heard, "Beethoven feeds a lot of what we do," spoken by first violin Cecily Ward, who noted that Beethoven completed Op. 135 in F Major in 1826, just a few months before his death, giving this overwhelmingly emotional yet simple quartet even more poignancy than the music conveys.

Listeners might note the styles of Mozart and Haydn in this music, Ward explained, but this quartet is Beethoven at his purest. He took the essence of the quartet, that most personal of instrumental compositions, and delivered it before his death for all the world to hear.

Sunday, about 75 heard it in St. Louis. All are welcome to hear it on a disc recorded by the Cypress Quartet: Cecily Ward and Tom Stone (violin), Ethan Filner (viola) and Jennifer Kloetzel (cello).

Next time these four blessed musicians are in town, do not miss them.