Thursday, January 30, 2014

Weekend Concerts Two: Cypress String Quartet

The 17-year-old, San Francisco based Cypress String Quartet has started a "Salon Series" this year, performing in three small halls around the Bay Area. In the East Bay, they are at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, on the Peninsula at the Woman's Club of Palo Alto, and in San Francisco at the small, glass-enclosed Joe Henderson Lab at the SFJAZZ Center. Performing chamber music in actual small chambers is a wonderful idea, and I caught up with the group on Saturday evening at the SFJAZZ Center.

Another innovation of the group is their "Call and Response" programs where they schedule two established pieces for string quartet, and then commission a living composer to respond somehow to the already existing works. In 2001, the living composer was Benjamin Lees writing his Fifth String Quartet to join Shostakovich's 11th and Britten's Third, and they liked the combination enough that they decided to repeat the program a dozen years later. Pictured above from left to right are Cecily Ward and Tom Stone on violin, Jennifer Kloetzel on cello, and Ethan Filner on viola.

Before each quartet, an alternating member of the Cypress would give a long, informal introduction to the quartet about to be played, which I found annoying but which most of the audience seemed to enjoy. Shostakovich's 11th Quartet was written in 1966 for the Soviet based Beethoven Quartet soon after its violist Vasily Shirinsky had died and the ensemble was considering disbanding. In seven continuous movements, the 17-minute piece was crammed with ideas and motifs, and the playing of the Cypress was excellent as was the sound in the small room. Britten's Third Quartet is one of his last works, with the long, exquisitely beautiful final movement not only quoting his own Death in Venice opera, but sounding very much like a response to the final movement of Mahler's Ninth Symphony.

After such weighty fare, the Benjamin Lees String Quartet #5 could have easily sounded inconsequential, but it turned out to be my favorite piece of the evening, possibly because it was written for this ensemble and they played the stuffing out of it. Lees immigrated from Russia via China to San Francisco with his Jewish family soon after his birth in 1924. They moved to Los Angeles in the 1930s where he joined the military for World War Two, and returned to study with the wild, savvy composer George Antheil who encouraged him to apply for grants and check out the scene in Europe. He and his wife spent most of the 1950s in Paris, then moved to New York where he taught and composed for the next 30 years before moving to Palm Springs where he eventually died in 2010 soon after finishing his final String Quartet #6, also for the Cypress. His musical style is not that far from Britten or Shostakovich, a mixture of conservative tonal styles and spiky rhythms, but with a voice very much his own. It made me want to hear more of his music, the ultimate compliment.

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