This morning I visited the Community Music Center (CMC) to attend the Community Preview Performance of the fifteenth anniversary Call & Response program that will be presented by the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ), consisting of violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, on March 14. This is their annual commissioning exercise in which a composer is invited to write a “response” to the “call” of one or more of the compositions in the CSQ repertoire. This season the “call” might be said to involve three scales of duration. The major work is Franz Schubert’s final string quartet (D. 887 in G major), whose performance tends to run to around 45 minutes. On a more moderate scale, the “call” includes Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz” (slow movement), one of his first works composed (in 1905) under Arnold Schoenberg’s supervision as a teacher. The final “call” comes from the five movements in Webern’s Opus 5, the longest of which lasts about three and one-half minutes. The “response” has been commissioned from George Tsontakis, who is participating in the exercise for the second time.
This morning’s preview certainly gave a clear sense of the different levels of durational scale. It began with the first movement of the D. 887 quartet, which took about fifteen minutes. (Kloetzel observed that, had the repeats been included, the performance would have taken about twenty minutes. She also reminded the audience that, in the days of Joseph Haydn, that might have been the duration of an entire symphony.) This was followed by the opening section of the “Langsamer Satz” and the fourth and third (in that order) of the Opus 5 movements. Finally, CSQ played an excerpt from Tsontakis’ “response” quartet, explaining that the composer had not yet had a chance to listen to their performance. Filner made this observation to explain that things might change by the time the actual concert was given.
Each of these pieces was given an introductory explanation. While these were informative, I think it was a bit demanding on many of the listeners to begin the program immediately with the Schubert movement before providing any of that explanation. Furthermore, since a major element of the Call & Response program involves workshops with Bay Area students, efforts to engage the students in this morning’s audience seemed rather weak, perhaps because the performers were constrained to work within only one hour of time.
On a more positive note I was impressed at Kloetzel’s efforts to come up with an example to illustrate why Tsontakis’ composition constituted a “response.” Nevertheless, it struck me that this year’s “call” selections made for some rather intimidating listening experiences. I was impressed by how some of the students picked up on the microscopic qualities of Webern’s Opus 5 and how one of them associated it with heavy metal. On the other hand the other two “call” selections tend to expect more experience from the listener, and more attention should have been given to the needs of audience members lacking that experience.
Since Tsontakis’ “response” is still “work in progress,” it would be unfair to say anything about it. This preview experience certainly helped in shaping expectations. With any luck those expectations will still be valid when the work is completed.