Acclaimed Cypress String Quartet to perform
By Lou Fancher
Intimacy is ultimate when it comes to the Cypress String Quartet.
Whether it's bedding down with Beethoven, enrapturing audiences with Debussy's swirling sonics or unearthing the secret dynamo of lesser-known composers in the Bay Area and worldwide, the four-member San Francisco-based troupe offers an alluring chemistry.
So a visit by the ensemble to the Bankhead Theater on Valentine's Day is a perfectly-timed offering of love, romance, longing, desire and satiation. Founded in 1996, Cypress draws its members from leading music schools including Juilliard, the Cleveland Institute of Music, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and conservatories of music in Europe. Frequently praised for their elegant, expressive playing, the U.K. magazine Gramophone has upheld their " ... artistry of uncommon insight and cohesion." They've released 10 award-winning recordings and commissioned and premiered more than 30 works.
But exaltation in reviews and accumulated honors are not the cause of their intimacy; they are the result. With three founding members, cellist Jennifer Kloetzel and violinists Tom Stone and Cecily Ward, a shared sensibility born over nearly two decades becomes audible, establishing their playing's seamlessness. Even relative newbie Ethan Filner, a viola player from Danville, has been with Cypress for 14 years.
"We make sound people call unmistakable," Kloetzel says. "We build a pyramid from the bass, unlike other quartets that build from the first violin down."
With Cypress' first violin balanced on top, she says they've been compared to lace, delicate and spun. Even so, the troupe in rehearsal is careful and probing, borderline-obsessed with unearthing a given composer's voice.
"The stories are what music is about for me," Kloetzel says. "I do everything in my power to capture the composer, to take in their world through research. Our Beethoven will never sound like our Hayden, our Hayden will not sound like our Dvorák."
Stone has a similar view on how the members meld, saying a selflessness allows each player to abandon artistic self-absorption and make sacrifices for the good of the whole, for the music. He says their individualism -- the style and temperament each person brings to the mix -- is like spice.
"We have a healthy amount of electricity. You need some tension to have chemistry. Too much, you explode; too little, you go flat," he says.
The Tri-Valley program opens with Beethoven's "Quartet Op. 18 No. 4," a taut, intense work written in 1800 and representing the composer on the cusp of classical music's Romantic period.
Stone says the work "brews like a cauldron" and is rare for being the only one of five early Beethoven quartets written in a minor key. Kloetzel is most fond of the piece's details and says the more she performs it, the more Beethoven becomes a sort of musical soulmate.
Cypress assumed their name as a tribute to Antonín Dvorák's "Cypresses," a cycle of early love songs for string quartet. It's fitting that an evening fashioned around celebratory and sophisticated matters of the heart closes with the Czech composer's "Quartet Op. 51" from 1879. Leaping without hesitation between gorgeous melodies, Slavic tunes and mournful passages, the work shows off Cypress' range.
Arriving like an arrow out of the mist and carrying a piercing backstory, the less well-known "Divertimento for String Quartet" by Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff is the "young" piece in the center of the program.
"We're some of the first artists in America to play his music," says Stone. "He died in a Nazi concentration camp, and his music was lost during the Cold War."
Stone says the divertimento is colorful, charming and filled with jazz influences and a flair that brings to mind a German cabaret. Because Schulhoff and Dvorák share ethnicity but are from different generations, Stone says audiences will hear in their music connection and how music changes over time.
Kloetzel, reiterating her love of story, says, "Schulhoff was in Paris, and Debussy was forcing him to write traditionally when he wrote this work. You can hear Schulhoff reaching beyond Debussy's world to find special colors in the harmony."
Desperate for beauty, thinking of escape, imagining freedom, Schulhoff wrote by lamplight and Kloetzel says the work's second movement is stunning and causes audiences to gasp.
Love is composed of perfect flaws and passionate influences, and Stone, remarking on the thoughtful pairing the collective applies when selecting works for a program, says the evening is planned to be like life: one moment, you're incredibly sad, the next, you are infinitely elated. Throughout, there's gorgeous music to carry imagination aloft.