Cypress String Quartet at 92nd Street Y at SubCulture – Dvořák, Tsontakis & Schubert

Cypresses [selections]
String Quartet No.6 [New York premiere]
String Quartet in G, D887

Cypress String Quartet [Cecily Ward & Tom Stone (violins), Ethan Filner (viola), & Jennifer Kloetzel (cello)]

Reviewed by: Violet Bergen

Reviewed: 1 April, 2014
Venue: 92nd Street Y at SubCulture, 45 Bleecker Street, New York City

Cypress String Quartet. Photograph: Gregory GoodeThe 92nd Street Y’s new performing space, SubCulture, is an attempt to merge the downtown scene with a classical music venue. The results are mixed; although there is a welcoming vibe with low lighting and a bar with relaxed serving hours (mingling with the featured contemporary composer is encouraged by the performers), the acoustics in the refurbished area (ex-industrial) are dry and ill-suited to music. A low stage and seating extremely close to the performers adds to the problems, with no chance for the instruments to blend.

The San Francisco-based Cypress String Quartet takes its name from Dvořák’s unpublished love-songs written when 24 and dedicated to his 16-year-old student, whose sister he later married. His string-quartet arrangements of 12 of them mainly feature the first-violinist playing the vocal line, and were published posthumously, when the title was bestowed on them. Four were presented here in a program devoted to, in the words of Jennifer Kloetzel, “exploring different kinds of lyricism”. The players bestowed care and tenderness on their namesake works, featuring Cecily Ward’s bright tone, the music expressing longing in both sweetness and intensity, sometimes with more-assertive lower voices in their melancholic accompaniment, and others were brisker and light-hearted.

George Tsontakis’s String Quartet No.6 is a product of the Cypress’s Call and Response program, which commissions works to be written as a reaction to established repertoire. In an introduction, Ward spoke of choosing Tsontakis because of his sense of lyricism, fitting with Schubert. The first movement, ‘Stroph’, evokes Schubert immediately with an abrupt change of key from major to minor, then hovers in and out of recognizable tonality. The players share melodic phrases, rendering them with elegant nuance. Ward stated that the second movement, ‘Blaze’, was the fulfillment of a request for a fast movement – lacking in the composer’s Fifth String Quartet, also a Cypress commission. Rapid repetitive fragments of scales provide the backdrop for much of the movement and overpowered the lyrical elements. Lacking the first movement’s intriguing harmonic changes, the emotional climate soon became stagnant.

Schubert’s G major String Quartet, written at the end of his brief life, is an exploration of the forces of dark and light. The Cypress players were successful in demonstrating their comprehension of this bipolarity, which they delivered with such melodrama that the dramatic story of the work was extinguished. Vast shifts in the opening movement had but two settings: sweet or intense. The dotted rhythms were sticky and lacked shape. In the Andante, each forte was equal in weight, making the movement shapeless and, ultimately, boring. In the scherzo, the players seemed overly focused on unity of ensemble, and made an annoying pause before each sudden quiet passage. Ward’s intonation was precise in the finale’s high arpeggios, but she seemed tense throughout, and one missed the wood for the trees.

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