Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Cypress String Quartet's Slavonic Salon

In the 1970s, when I was a not-so-innocent young thing, I attended a lovely, expensive, mostly gay party in a Berkeley Hills home with jaw-dropping vistas of San Francisco Bay. Even more impressive was the wooden living room with its floor to ceiling shelves of books and records. The two items that piqued my interest even though I knew nothing about them were a set of Jane Austen's complete works and a set of Haydn's approximately 70 string quartets, so I asked the elderly host why they were so prominent on his wall. "Oh, Jane Austen? I'll find I want to look up a line from one of her books and then end up reading the whole damned set again. She's that good. And Haydn's String Quartets? They're the best: sane, beautiful, funny, intelligent, you name it."

Last Saturday at the SFJAZZ Center, the Cypress String Quartet above (from left to right Cecily Ward and Tom Stone on violin, Jennifer Kloetzel on cello, and Ethan Filner on viola) started their final Salon Series with a late Haydn Quartet, Opus 76, No. 5, and that unknown host's remark popped into my brain, prompted by their very good performance.

They continued with an early Schulhoff Divertimento from 1914, introduced by cellist Jennifer Kloetzel. Erwin Schulhoff (his photo is at the top next to the Haydn set) seems to be the "discovery" flavor of the moment these days. Every presenter goes into long detail about his tragic life as an ardent Czech Jewish Communist who died in a Nazi concentration camp, but his music doesn't need any special pleading. Everything I have heard over the last couple of years has been lively, accessible, and pleasurable. As a jazz enthusiast who adored dancing, Schulhoff also believed in fun and you can hear it in his music, including the Divertimento which had traces of pre-WWI French cabaret about it. Now somebody needs to perform his 1932 oratorio based on The Communist Manifesto, or his 1935 jazz oratorio H.M.S. Royal Oak, which according to Wikipedia tells the story of a naval mutiny against a superior who prohibits jazz on board ship.

After intermission, the quartet played the mid-period Dvorak String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 51. The violin playing by Cecily Ward was a bit astringent for my taste but it was more than balanced out by the deeply warm sound of cellist Kloetzel and violist Filner above.

The four play together so seamlessly that it is sometimes hard to tell who is playing what, which is high praise. (Violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone are pictured above.)

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