Last night in the Joe Henderson Lab of the SFJAZZ Center, the Cypress String Quartet (CSQ), consisting of violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, gave the final San Francisco performance in their three-concert Salon Series for the 2013–2014 season. This season’s theme was Slavic Soundscapes, and last night’s concert explored that theme through three composers from three centuries. The program opened with Joseph Haydn’s Hoboken III/79 quartet in D major, the fifth of a set of six dedicated to Count Joseph Erdödy (the “Slavic connection”), written between 1796 and 1797, This was followed by the twentieth-century offering, Czech composer Erwin Schulhoff’s first piece for string quartet, his Opus 14 divertimento, composed in 1914. The intermission was followed by Antonín Dvořák’s Opus 51 quartet in E-flat major, composed in 1878.
In spite of their separation in time, Haydn and Schulhoff were well coupled. Both approached composition with a clear sense of where the boundaries were and then devised their own innovative approaches for stepping over them. By the time Haydn returned to Vienna in 1795 he had experienced life as both servant to Nikolaus I, Prince Esterházy, and the public life of a professional musician promoted in England by Johann Peter Salomon. He returned to Vienna as a prosperous bourgeois, who could afford a large house in the Windmühle suburb and could pretty much write his own ticket. Nikolaus II invited him to return to Esterháza, which Haydn did, but only on a part-time basis during the summer. The quartets for Erdödy were written during those “summer breaks.”
The quartet performed last night was particularly adventurous. It contains some of Haydn’s boldest departures from conventional structural forms and a particularly lengthy slow movement marked in Largo (rather than Adagio or Andante) tempo. (The key of that Largo is F-sharp major, which may have frightened off many professionals, as well as amateurs.) The rhetoric involves abrupt mood shifts, usually good-natured in the faster movements and often downright comic.
Ward gave a brief introduction to prepare the audience for some of the departures from convention that would follow. Still, there were unprepared surprises, all of which were capably executed without ever being overplayed. One could sense the rich social interplay of the musicians as performers, more aware of their personal interactions than of simply following the dictates of the marks on paper on their music stands. The result was engaging during the Largo and exuberantly delightful in the faster movements.
Schulhoff’s divertimento was given an equally spirited account. His personal life differed significantly from Haydn’s. He embraced both Communism and Dadaism, but he was still the product of a disciplined music education. He had expected to break free of that discipline through his studies with Claude Debussy, but he left Debussy when the master insisted on continuing traditional disciplines. Opus 14 preceded Schulhoff’s military service in the First World War and his subsequent encounters with both jazz and Dadaism (not to mention left-wing politics). The movements tend to follow traditional forms; but each has its own characteristic playful spirit, which sustained its unconventional approaches to harmony, melody, and instrumental sonorities. CSQ’s interpretation was sustained by their embrace of Schulhoff’s high spirits; so, while the music was unfamiliar to most of the audience, their approach to it was highly inviting.
Dvořák’s Opus 51 concluded the evening with the most explicit evocation of Slavic sources on the program. Dvořák had become a successful public figure through idiomatic works such as his settings of Slavonic dances and his Rusalka opera. Opus 51 was commissioned by the Florentine Quartet with an explicit request for more of those idioms. CSQ was clearly comfortable with that rhetorical foundation, particularly in the abrupt mood swings of the Dumka movement. There was also very much a conversational style in the discursive interplay of the voices that excellently matched the intimacy of engagement among the four CSQ players. Dvořák was the perfect composer for concluding the Slavic theme of the season, and the warmth with which Cypress performed Opus 51 was the ideal expression of that conclusion.