Cypress Quartet Starts Its Farewells

Cypress Quartet Starts Its Farewells with Beethoven and a New Dan Coleman Opus By Paul Hertelendy
March 14, 2016

Dan Coleman’s clever and quite beautiful world premiere work for the Cypress String Quartet could well have been titled the “Permutations Quartet,” as he exploited the various combinations of duets and trios available in the new opus, methodically presenting one after the other. He has a gift for highly lyrical and alluring counterpoint, giving the illusion of musicians’ total effortlessness. Each one is equally into thematic material; there is no accompaniment as such. His sound is totally consonant, but it brings out his own voice in this piece entitled String Quartet No. 3 (“together, as the river”), quoting a Louise Glück poem.

Coleman’s music over the 19-minute span is airborne, lifting one’s spirits in the process. He wrote for 10 of the 11 possible permutations, maintaining a delicate patina throughout. If we number the players from the top 1 through 4, these included: 1-2, an animated close interplay of two violins; 1-4, a brisk top-and-bottom exercise; 1-3-4, a reflective Brahmsian segment, with 1-3 equally autumnal. 1-2-3 was I think the most beautiful, while 2-3-4 brought forth more heated exchanges. The finale with all four combined had its fetching sonorities bringing closure---but not before a 3-4 afterthought.

How appropriate this math, virtually on the eve of Einstein's birthday! The whole however is much more than a mathematical assignment; it is total equality, with every instrument equally weighted in leadership and thematic content.

This commissioned premiere was to be the final segment of the “Call and Response” format that Cypress has done annually. But Tucson resident Coleman, 43, tapped twice before for C-&-R since the millennium, confessed that this time he was doing a solo flight, not responding to the Beethoven works rounding out the program given at the Herbst Theatre San Francisco March 11.

The four midcareer musicians of the Cypress String Quartet have started their farewell series. After a 20-year run and many new works, they will call it quits permanently in June, even though still on top of the game, in excellent form. They will disband and each go on to new projects not yet publicized, a stunning change of direction that very few healthy and thriving groups undertake.

In playing the first and last of the Beethoven string quartets the Cypress players again showed their characterics, with first violinist Cecily Ward holding back slightly to avoid hogging the limelight, and the exuberantly expressive Jennifer Koetzel doing the same at cello, balancing violinist Tom Stone and violist Ethan Filner. The Cypress is ultra-refined, articulate, yet not shying away from emotion. And their sound is exquisite.

Beethoven’s last completed work, Op. 135, used a simplistic four-note theme, varied and transformed in myriad ways. There are two other surprises: In the slow movement, all the players starting on the lowest string, then working up till all four are on the highest; and in the finale, the musical question is posed, “Must it be?” with the riposte, “It must be!” offering a mystery for the ages: What exactly was Beethoven referring to? Anticipation of death just months away? Perhaps. The exchanges reflect defiance far more than any morose wallowing. Wasch-echt Beethoven (genuine to the core), as they’d say back in Bonn.

The concert opened with the Quartet No. 1. Noteworthy is its invention in the Adagio, a doleful tragedy inspired by the Tomb Scene of “Romeo and Juliet,” moving on to hard strokes and high passion rare for its time. After the June ending, the Cypressers will all go their separate ways with new challenges. Some no doubt will be drawn to education, carrying forward the music that they’ve delivered to some 150,000 Bay Area students over the years. The impact has been noteworthy: Playing to hundreds of middle-school youngsters and musicians in this concert, the Cypress profited from the pin-drop silence throughout, without so much as a cell-phone ringtone or dropped notebook disturbing the intense experience. We adults could learn some pointers from the kids!