in: Reviews

July 13, 2015

Refreshing Cypresses at Maverick


The Cypress String Quartet is based in California, but it managed to come east long enough to play at Maverick Concerts on July 12th. One attraction for the ensemble must be its friendship with Woodstock composer George Tsontakis, one of whose quartets (commissioned by the quartet) was included on its program.

Cellist Jennifer Kloetzel told the audience that the quartet had decided to learn and perform all of Beethoven’s String Quartets on a five year plan. That was sixteen years ago. (The CSQ has been playing together for 19 years.) Our beneficiary of this project was the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, known as the “Harp” Quartet because someone (not Beethoven) was reminded of the sound of the harp by its plucked arpeggios. We could immediately hear the very high technical standard of this ensemble in its virtually perfect ensemble and excellent balance. The playing was also highly expressive throughout. This group plays almost like a single 16-string instrument, so homogeneous is its sound and expression. That’s not always a good thing. Some diversity of sound and approach can make for lively interpretations. But I didn’t hear anything lacking in this performance.

Later this season, we will hear one of the three Maverick commissioned works, George Tsontakis’s “Quartet No. 7.5.” The Cypress String Quartet brought us last year’s Tsontakis Quartet, his no. 6. It’s in two large movements totaling about 20 minutes. The first movement, “Strophe,” seems to me to use a kind of collage technique, welding together various elements into a convincing continuity. I thought I heard a lot of Beethovenian devices in this movement, which was highly expressive and despite its thoroughly contemporary idiom quite easy to follow. The second movement, “Blaze,” began with a long rapid section in strong rhythm, built on an ostinato figure like a slowed-down trill. This music seemed rather Bartókian, while remaining original. Eventually the ostinato ran out of steam and gave way to a slower, more lyrical section, but then the ostinato gradually began to infiltrate the music and sped it up again. I suspect this piece will be around for a while, and the Maverick audience–allegedly a conservative group–responded with enthusiasm.

Cypress Quartet (file photo)

Cypress Quartet (file photo)

I don’t know of another string quartet ensemble named for a specific piece of music, but the Cypress String Quartet announced its affection for Dvořák at its founding by taking its name from that composer’s “Cypresses.” And it doesn’t go around playing the “American” Quartet all the time, like almost everyone else. Instead, this program concluded with the Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 51, which has picked up from somewhere the nickname “Slavonic.” Maybe it’s because the last movement, a furiant, could easily fit into the Slavonic Dances. The performance was very precise but still warm and folksy enough, with a very pretty Romanza and strong, dancy rhythms in the Finale. I think this work might benefit from a more flexible, 19th-century rhythmic approach, like that heard in early 20th-century recordings by groups like the Bohemian and Flonzaley Quartets. But within a more contemporary approach, this was an extremely successful performance in a well-planned program.

Leslie Gerber, who lives in Woodstock, New York, has been reviewing professionally since 1966, for such venues as Performance Today, Fanfare, and He also publishes the Parnassus Records label.

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