Metro Pulse: KSO Finds Room for Innovation in Gershwin’s Best-Known Works

Metro Pulse

Wednesday, October 27, 2010
by Alan Sherrod

One of the unfortunate, gaping holes in the Knoxville-area classical music scene is the dearth of appearances by notable ensembles with national reputations. Thankfully, the Oak Ridge Civic Music Association has the means and the willingness to help correct that deficiency, albeit for an Oak Ridge audience. Last weekend, their Chamber Series brought the marvelous Cypress String Quartet, a San Francisco-based ensemble, to Oak Ridge for a concert of works by Glazunov and Beethoven, along with a newly commissioned work, Bel Canto, by Elena Ruehr. This 15-year-old ensemble, consisting of violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, is clearly dedicated to exquisite music-making and to opening up the string quartet repertoire to new works.

Bel Canto was inspired by the popular novel of the same name by Ann Pachett and sought, in a vaguely programmatic way, to illustrate specific moments of that work. Although lovingly performed, I was oddly unmoved. The work felt like a precursor to a film score in which the composer was thinking "orchestra," but was unable to adapt images to the sonorities of a string quartet.

A much happier story was the Beethoven Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 130. With the inclusion of the brilliant and turbulent Große Fugue, the work’s original final movement, this performance was monumental in every sense of the word. The quartet avoided brutality in that final movement while keeping the churning fugal motifs in motion amid dynamic shifts that push and recede. The long periods of fortissimo playing demanded careful attention to tonal balance in the midst of volume, something that this brilliant quartet had obviously mastered long ago.