SF Chronicle: Cypress Quartet Bows Out In Style

Source: SF Chronicle
June 27, 2016
By Joshua Kosman

The old showbiz mantra says you should always leave ’em wanting more, and that truth has rarely felt as apt as it did during the farewell concert Sunday afternoon, June 26, by the Cypress String Quartet.

For 20 years, this energetic ensemble — now comprising violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel — has offered audiences an array of musical treasures, including not only works of the standard repertoire but also the fruits of a long and dedicated commissioning program. The group’s decision to disband will leave a distinctive gap in the artistic landscape.

Sunday’s program in the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera was cannily chosen to highlight the particular dimensions of the Cypress’ legacy. It featured a Beethoven quartet — Op. 95 in F Minor, “Serioso” — as a nod to the group’s long-standing engagement with that body of work, including a complete recording on the Avie label and a recent project to play all 16 quartets in public free concerts around San Francisco.

There was a sampler of movements from four recent works and a small representative of the more than two dozen pieces commissioned and premiered by the quartet. The standard repertoire was included in the form of Debussy’s String Quartet. And the encores took a Czech turn, with short, wonderfully rendered selections by Dvorák, Josef Suk and Erwin Schulhoff.

If the work of Beethoven and the contemporary composers were the area with which the quartet has been especially strongly identified, it was the Debussy, oddly enough, that elicited the afternoon’s most thrilling performance.

This was a reading of elegance and expressive clarity, marked by lush textures and keenly pointed rhythms. The distinctively ambiguous strains of Debussy’s writing — by turns delicate and emotionally supple — found voice in the quartet’s performance. The full-bodied ensemble playing in the slow movement was only one delight among many.

For the contemporary segment, the quartet assembled single movements of four of their commissioned pieces, making a patchwork suite that could almost pass as a single score. The movements didn’t quite mesh with one another, but on the other hand this was a reasonably workable ploy to get plenty of music into a single program.

And the individual movements each served as enticing teasers for their original settings. “Clay Flute,” from Elena Ruehr’s Third String Quartet, turned a small handful of notes into a beguiling, deceptively simple creation, while the finale from Benjamin Lees’ Sixth String Quartet — robust, rhythmically varied and full of harmonic spice — made a splendid conclusion. In between came a sweet, slightly cloying excerpt from Jennifer Higdon’s “Impressions” (a response to the quartets of Debussy and Ravel) and a tiny scherzo by French composer Philippe Hersant that left one eager to hear it in the context of his Third Quartet.

All of them were delivered with the fervor and commitment that have characterized this ensemble’s finest work over the years. It’s a group that will be sorely missed.