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Cypress String Quartet explores compelling perspectives on death

The members of the Cypress String Quartet: Jennifer Kloetzel, Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, and Ethan Filner
The members of the Cypress String Quartet: Jennifer Kloetzel, Cecily Ward, Tom Stone, and Ethan Filner
by Basil Childers, courtesy of the Cypress String Quartet

Last night in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center, the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ) performed the second concert in the 2013–2014 season of their Salon Series. The theme of this season’s set of three recitals is Slavic Soundscapes, and Dmitri Shostakovich played a pivotal role in last night’s program. However, the actual focus of last night’s program seemed to be fixated on recognizing and responding to death.

This was clearly stated when the program began with Shostakovich’s Opus 122 quartet in F minor (the eleventh in his set of fifteen). The quartet was composed in 1966 and dedicated to the memory of Vasily Shirinsky, who had died the previous year. Shirinsky, who had been a childhood friend of Shostakovich, was the founder (in 1923) and second violinist of the Beethoven Quartet, the ensemble that, as of 1965, has premiered all but the first of Shostakovich’s quartets. Shirinsky had also edited the first ten quartets for publication.

Ironically, 1966 was also the year in which Shostakovich turned 60. It was thus a landmark year in which the death of someone very close probably triggered thoughts of his own mortality. Nevertheless, Shostakovich was also instrumental in persuading the remaining members of the Beethoven Quartet to take on a new second violinist, rather than disband. Opus 122 thus emerged as both am elegiac reflection on the past and motivation to move into the future with the coming of a new performer.

The music, which is only about fifteen minutes in duration, is structured as seven brief movements played without interruption. Each movement has a title describing its form; and the penultimate movement is explicitly marked “Elegy.” However, the sense of mourning begins in the opening measures of the “Introduction” movement, in which the first violin plays an extended solo in which the absence of the second violin makes the first impression. On the other hand, the presence of the second violin is most apparent in the more light-hearted “Humoresque” movement, which explicitly pokes fun at the “period of adjustment” during which the new member learns to play with the others.

CSQ performed this quartet with a clear appreciation for its highly personal context. However, they also seemed to endow it with their own sense of personalization. Shostakovich’s score thus provided them with an opportunity to reflect on their own seventeen-year growth as a string quartet. This was the music of an intimate conversation; and, in last night’s performance in the Henderson Lab, one could apprehend the conversational rhetoric that informed CSQ’s performance and the intimate context established by their “salon” setting.

1966 was Shostakovich’s last “decade birthday” year. He would not live to see 70, dying on August 9, 1975. 1975 was also the year in which Benjamin Britten, one of Shostakovich’s closest friends (even if neither spoke the other’s language), composed his final extended works. Britten had been debilitated by a slight stroke brought on during surgery in May of 1973 to replace a failing heart valve. He was looked after by a senior nursing sister, Rita Thomson, who moved to Aldeburgh in 1974 and looked after him for the rest of his life.

Britten’s third quartet (Opus 94 in G major) was one of the pieces he composed in 1975. It was written two months after Shostakovich’s death; and Shostakovich’s spirit is clearly present, particularly in the prankish fourth (“Burlesque”) movement. However, the thematic material is also informed by the music Britten had composed for his Death in Venice opera in 1973; and Britten never concealed the fact that he identified at a highly personal level with the opera’s protagonist, Gustav von Aschenbach. The final movement, structured as a passacaglia with an introductory (operatic?) recitative, is given the subtitle “La Serenissima,” drawing its name from La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia (the most serene republic of Venice).

That sense of serenity also reflected Britten’s personal mediations on the final hours of Jesus facing crucifixion. Having seen the end of Shostakovich’s journey, Britten knew that his own was now in sight. He died fifteen days before the Opus 94 quartet was given its first performance; but, through the conclusion of that quartet, he could take the final steps of his journey with a serene calm and the satisfaction of a highly productive life. In that context it was significant that CSQ could both appreciate and communicate that sense of serenity that saw Britten through his final months.

For the final half of their program, CSQ returned to the fifth string quartet of Benjamin Lees. This was completed in the summer of 2001 under a CSQ commission for their Call & Response series. In fact, the commission requested that Lees “respond” to the “call” of the Shostakovich and Britten quartets performed during the first half of last night’s recital. Lees’ primary influence, however, seems to have been Surrealist painting; and he tried to capture the illogical juxtapositions of images evoked by the Surrealists in his own juxtapositions of thematic material. To some extent similar juxtapositions can be found in Shostakovich, but Britten’s presence is less clear.

Indeed, there was even a bit of irony in that, after the seven movements of Shostakovich’s quartet and the five movements of Britten’s, Lees should fall back on the traditional four-movement conventions of the eighteenth century. In addition, the final movement is an “Explosive” (actually the movement title) burst of fugal writing, which may have taken in both the seventeenth century and Britten in a single nod. While there is no parallel fugue in Opus 94, Britten was particular skilled at imitative counterpoint; and, for all we know, Lees had decided that, following the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach, it would be appropriate to complement the passacaglia of Opus 94 with a fugue.

CSQ made a clear case that there was as much substance in Lees as had been encountered in both Shostakovich and Britten. The problem, however, is that Lees’ music receives so little attention that appreciating his substance is more difficult. The evening thus concluded with the poignant reminder that here was a composer who clearly deserved more attention than he was getting and that this was not a mission that CSQ could undertake alone.

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