Strings Magazine: Cypress String Quartet Pays Homage to America’s Rich Musical Traditions
By Heather K. Scott
Cypress String Quartet captures the majestic power of chamber music inspired by the nation’s diversity in sound
American music is one of those oddities that just defies categorization. There’s a diverse platter of folk music, various African-American music, and, of course, Native American music. It is a rich history of melody and dissonance: mountain-inspired tunes from the Appalachian and Rockies, folk from the prairie, African-American beauty from the South, miners’ camp ballads from the central north. And on and on.
But, the irony, as Dvorak—just one composer on The American Album, recently released by the Cypress String Quartet—so aptly noticed, is that back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, no classical composer was reveling in this rich history of sound. Not one single classical composer was celebrating the American propensity to break out into song, even in the most harrowing times (which so often was the impetus to create amazing music for those composing during this time).
This CD opens with Dvorak’s lovely String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96, “American.” I’ll be the first to admit, I have a soft spot for this piece, living not far from where it was penned (Spillville, Iowa, a place where Dvorak himself stated that he’d never felt more at home). This recording by the Cypress String Quartet—Cecily Ward, violin; Tom Stone, violin; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello—encapsulates the beauty and austerity of the high prairie. One can feel the late-summer breeze, sense the huge presence of the bison lolling nearby, the fear and excitement of a potential Native American encounter.
Griffes mimics this same gorgeous melody in his two sketches based on Native American themes. But the true magic comes in the CD’s eighth track, the Molto adagio of Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 1. Within the outlines of this quartet, you can hear the rough, rustic edges of what will become Barber’s fantastic Adagio for Strings, one of his most famed works. The push and pull of this piece in the raw and elegant tones of a quartet are at once arresting and heart wrenching.
The members of the Cypress have done their homework. These pieces are honest and pure, and performed with a keen ear toward their forefathers.
The American Album is a rare treat, beautiful music executed beautifully.
Three Quartets Offering Portraits of America
Here is Dvorak that is refreshingly free from conventional interpretative influences. Instead of the customary ritard before the big second theme in the first movement, there is a flow of music as generous as from a brook in spring. Instead of the customary 'bounce' to the dance that opens the last movement, the San Francisco-based Cypress Quartet find a generous simplicity that is in keeping with their optimistic, big-hearted personality. Theirs is Dvorak of the wide-open American prairie, far from the sophistication of the composer's beloved Prague or even cosmopolitan New York City where he lived. The Cypress Quartet's sheer instrumental mastery engages so seamlessly with the music's best intentions that touches, such as the cellist's brilliant way with the pizzicati in the third movement's Trio, would go almost unnoticed were it not for Mark Willsher's superlative recording, made at Skywalker Sound.
The first of Griffes's Two Sketches based on Indian Themes, premiered seven months after the composer's now increasingly lamented death at 35, is haunting music that once heard can never be forgotten - particularly the opening where eerie harmonies fretting under high violin held notes transform into a gorgeous viola solo. The second movement careens uncertainly between serious exuberance and regretful sentiment.
The complete Barber Quartet, from which the famous Adagio is so often excerpted, is becoming a far more ofte-heard commodity. In fact, the Adagio's great expression of resignation has a different kind of impact when it grows out of and responds to the conflicted passion of the first movement. When it is played, as the Cypress do, with the lines and layers of harmonic growth applied with seemingly personal intimacy, a bitter, depressing aspect is revealed that is only mitigated, not absolved, by the movement's final richly intoned resolution, then underlined again by the conflicted last movement.
The Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward, violin; Tom Stone, violin; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer
Kloetzel, cello) is pleased to announce the release of its latest recording, The American Album, featuring music inspired by
America. The new album will be available from all major retailers on Tuesday, November 8, 2011, through the Cypress’ own
label. The American Album includes Antonín Dvo!ák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 (“American”), Charles
Tomlinson Griffes’ Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes, and Samuel Barber’s String Quartet in B Minor, Op. 11.
With The American Album, the Cypress Quartet celebrates these composers’ efforts to define and develop an American sound.
Dvo!ák wrote his String Quartet No. 12, nicknamed the “American,” in Spillville, Iowa in 1893 while visiting a small Czech
farming community. Influenced by the music he encountered there, he incorporated Native American and African American
themes into the work. Of his time in Spillville, Dvo!ák later said, “That’s when I was happy.”
Charles Tomlinson Griffes’ Two Sketches is based on two Native American songs. The members of the Cypress String Quartet
have done a great deal of research on which songs Griffes used in his concert work. They spoke with an elder of the Chippewa
tribe, and found that the first sketch is based on the “Chippewa Farewell Song,” and the second is part of a Hopi festival.
Cypress cellist Jennifer Kloetzel explains further, “The farewell song may have been sung by the tribe’s warriors as they
walked to war, and then sung by the tribe’s women and children as they walked back to the village from the battlefield.”
It is the second movement of Barber’s String Quartet with which the composer earned his greatest fame. The slow movement,
marked Molto adagio, would become Adagio for Strings for orchestra after Barber expanded it for Arturo Toscanini to conduct.
Aaron Copland’s belief that Adagio for Strings “comes straight from the heart” applies equally to the string quartet version. In
his own words, Barber knew that the movement was “a knockout” as soon as he finished it.
During its fifteenth anniversary season in 2011-2012, the Cypress String Quartet is adding two new recordings to its ten-album
discography. In addition to The American Album, in March the Cypress completes its three-volume set of Beethoven’s Late
Quartets. Volume three will include the groundbreaking Opus 132. Of volume one, released in 2009, the Cleveland Plain
Dealer wrote, “The Cypress players converse with such rare sincerity as to make long-familiar music sound utterly fresh.”
Known for its elegant performances, the Cypress String Quartet has been praised by Gramophone for its “artistry of uncommon
insight and cohesion,” and its sound has been called “beautifully proportioned and powerful” by The Washington Post. The
Cypress Quartet was formed in San Francisco in 1996, and during its initial rehearsals the group created a signature sound
through intense readings of J.S. Bach’s Chorales. Built up from the bottom register of the quartet and layered like a pyramid,
the resulting sound is clear and transparent, allowing the texture of the music to be discerned immediately.
The Cypress continues to maintain a busy national and international tour schedule, making appearances on concert series and in
venues including Cal Performances, Kennedy Center, Library of Congress, Stanford Lively Arts, Krannert Center and Ravinia
Festival. Their collaborators include artists such as Leon Fleisher, Jon Nakamatsu, Awadagin Pratt, Gary Hoffman, Atar Arad,
James Dunham, and Zuill Bailey. The ensemble is a vibrant member of the San Francisco arts community and dedicates itself
to reflecting and enriching the city’s cultural landscape through collaborations with the DeYoung Museum and San Francisco
Through its signature Call & Response program the Cypress Quartet commissions and premieres new string quartets from both
emerging and celebrated composers, asking them to write in response to established chamber repertoire. Call & Response
creates a dynamic dialogue between the past and present, between performers and composers, and among audiences of all ages.
The Cypress Quartet’s annual Call & Response concert at Herbst Theatre has earned a strong West Coast following; this major
concert is preceded by performances throughout the Bay Area in community centers, unorthodox spaces, and schools. In
addition, the Cypress frequently tours Call & Response repertoire, bringing these new works to cities across the country.
To date, the Cypress Quartet has commissioned and premiered over 30 pieces, four of which were chosen for Chamber Music
America’s list of “101 Great American Ensemble Works.” Commissioned composers include Benjamin Lees, Jennifer Higdon,
Kevin Puts, George Tsontakis, and Elena Ruehr.
The Cypress Quartet members received degrees from many of the world’s finest conservatories before coming together as a
quartet. These include The Juilliard School, Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal College of Music (London),
The Cleveland Institute of Music, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. After a residency at the Banff Centre and a
fellowship at the Center for Advanced Quartet Studies of the Aspen Music Festival, the Quartet coached intensively in London
with the Amadeus Quartet. Cypress members count the Cleveland and Juilliard Quartets as some of their greatest influences.
The members of the Cypress Quartet play exceptional instruments including violins by Antonio Stradivarius (1681) and Carlos
Bergonzi (1733), a viola by Vittorio Bellarosa (1947), and a cello by Hieronymus Amati II (1701). The Cypress Quartet takes
its name from the set of twelve love songs for string quartet, The Cypresses, by Antonin Dvo!ák.
The Cypress Quartet is managed by Christina Daysog Concert Artists.