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Singing Strings From the Cypress

February 4, 2012

Cypress String QuartetOne look at the Cypress String Quartet program, and I couldn’t pass it up: Ravel’s incomparable Quartet in F, Erwin Schulhoff’s fierce little Five Pieces for String Quartet, and one of Cypress’ early Call & Response commissions: Jennifer Higdon’s Impressions, written as a response to Ravel’s quartet. The concert was set at 12 Gallagher Lane, a modern art gallery tucked in a side street of San Francisco’s gradually transforming SOMA district.

Having been a student of Cypress in chamber music coachings at San Jose State University, I felt I had inside knowledge on how it approaches its work. One of the ideas that I remember the Quartet emphasizing was the concept of composite rhythms: the combined rhythmic result when all the separate parts are combined as one. This tight rhythmic integrity was on display especially in the Schulhoff. Col legno (taps of the bow’s wooden stick on the strings, rather than using the conventional bow hair) clicks, interlocked with perky pizzicato (plucked strings) and jagged melodic lines, highlighted the little-known Czech composer’s quirky style. As cellist Jennifer Kloetzel explained before the performance, Schulhoff remained practically unknown in the half-century following his death in a World War II concentration camp because his jazz-influenced music was considered too degenerate in the Eastern bloc, and too communist in the West (he even set Marx’s manifesto to music!). The Cypress has been championing Schulhoff since it picked up the obscure sheet music at random during a reading session and has performed his music regularly, even recorded it.

Rhythm also played a fascinating role in Higdon’s Impressions. The Cypress premiered the quartet in 2002, and since that time, as violinist Tom Stone noted, the composer’s career has taken off. This year her music will have hundreds of performances — an almost unheard-of feat for living composers. Her music is full of activity, with something exciting in every instrumental line. It’s bursting with conversations and rhythmic energy and is colored by bright, positive harmonies. Higdon’s harmonic language is pan-diatonic; having a strong sense of tonality makes it pleasing to the ear, while an unbridled melodic freedom gives it a unique openness. This beautiful optimism in Higdon’s music accounts for her success. The Cypress played her work with a natural facility that only a decade of familiarity can impart.

The Cypress played her work with a natural facility that only a decade of familiarity can impart.

Hints of Ravel can be heard throughout Higdon’s impressions: the quick, fluttering arpeggiations, and the prominent melodies for all instruments that bring out unique colors from each voice. The Ravel itself featured some stunning solos by violist Ethan Filner, using a thick velvety sound that projected without sounding pressed (and could sometimes even be mistaken for a cello). Violinist Cecily Ward’s lines soared effortlessly; she could play Ravel’s delicate melodies softly because the rest of the Quartet played with a transparent sound that let melodic lines shine through without having to yell.

The one place where I actually wished for a bit less rhythmic precision was the first movement. Ravel writes “cedez” (cede: give way) and “ritard” (slow down) all over the score. If impressionism in art is blurring freedom of lines and light, then impressionism in music would surely translate as blurring some of the rhythmic boundaries. An ideological commitment to Ravel’s printed score and to maintaining an even tempo prevented the Quartet from taking the extra freedom that the music calls for beyond the ink. Some of the transitions at the very end of the first movement, for example, yearn for an extreme stretching of time, but when this thirst isn’t indulged the music feels cold and rushed.

The Quartet played with a transparent sound that let melodic lines shine through.

After the concert, musicologist Kai Christiansen led a lively discussion. Most quartets have a designated speaker say a few words before or after the music, but Cypress spreads this responsibility around, and each of the quartet members is eloquent and knowledgeable about the history and theory behind the music being played. They were enthusiastic in answering questions, sometimes to the point of talking over each other. Christiansen referred to the San Francisco–based quartet as a “crown Jewel” of our city — worthy praise indeed.

The concert in the small venue had a distinctly local feel. The Quartet seemed at ease playing on their home turf in an intimate chamber, suited to this music. 2 Gallagher Lane features a well-hung collection pitting bold, solid-color squares by James Jarret against my favorite piece in the gallery: a curtain of tattered strips of paper burnt at the edges and lit by hidden lamps by Jonah Ward. Caged birds and butterflies by Hunt Slonem along with a multitude of watchful bunnies added life to the room. The art, combined with the music, wine, and fancy chocolate, made for a decadent overflowing of the senses.

Be'eri Moalem (www.beeri.org) is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.