Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg*

Cypress String Quartet

Cecily Ward, violin
Tom Stone,
Ethan Filner,
Jennifer Kloetzel,

Sunday, July 12, 2015, 4 pm


String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major, Op. 74,
the “Harp”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Poco adagio — Allegro
Adagio ma non troppo
Presto — attacca:
Allegretto con variazioni

String Quartet No. 6 (2014)
George Tsontakis (b. 1951)
Commissioned by the Cypress Quartet



String Quartet No. 10 in E flat, Op. 51, “Slavonic”
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

Allegro ma non troppo
Dumka (Elegia): Andante con moto — Vivace
Romanza: Andante con moto
Finale: Allegro assai


next week

Saturday, July 18, 11 am
Young People’s Concert
Bari Koral Family Band

Interactive program with catchy,
friendly tunes and creative movement

Saturday, July 18, 8 pm
Eldar Djangirov Trio

Sunday, July 19, 4 pm
Cassatt Quartet
Music of eminent local composers Joan Tower
and Peter Schickele, and Schuberts
“Death and the Maiden”



Known for its elegant performances, the Cypress String Quartet (Cecily Ward, violin; Tom Stone, violin; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello) has been praised by Gramophone for its “artistry of uncommon insight and cohesion.” The ensemble’s sound has been called beautifully proportioned and powerful” by The Washington Post. The Cypress Quartet was formed in San Francisco in 1996, and during its initial rehearsals the group created a signature sound through intense readings of J.S. Bach’s chorales. Built up from the bottom register of the quartet and layered like a pyramid, the resulting sound is clear and transparent, allowing the texture of the music to be discerned immediately.

The Cypress String Quartet has added several new recordings to its extensive discography in recent years. In 2012, the Quartet released a three-CD set of Beethoven’s late quartets, which was named Best Classical CD of 2012 by the Dallas Morning News. Their 2013 all-Dvořák disc is being featured on Sirius XM and PRI Classical, and was chosen as a CD of the Week on WQXR. In May 2014, the Cypress released a recording of Schubert’s String Quintet D. 956 (with cellist Gary Hoffman) paired with Schubert’s Quartettsatz D. 703. The New York Times called the album a “tender, deeply expressive interpretation.”

The Cypress tours extensively, appearing on concert series and in venues including Cal Performances, the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, Stanford Lively Arts, the Krannert Center of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the Ravinia Festival. Their collaborators have included Leon Fleisher, Jon Nakamatsu, Awadagin Pratt, Gary Hoffman, Atar Arad, James Dunham, and Zuill Bailey.

Through its “Call & Response” program, the Cypress Quartet commissions and premieres new string quartets from both emerging and celebrated composers, asking them to write in response to established chamber repertoire. To date, the Quartet has commissioned and premiered over thirty pieces, four of which were chosen for Chamber Music America’s list of “101 Great American Ensemble Works.” Commissioned composers include Benjamin Lees, Jennifer Higdon, Kevin Puts, George Tsontakis, and Elena Ruehr.

The quartet is based in San Francisco, and as part of its efforts to support and promote Bay Area arts and music, curates a Salon Series held in intimate spaces in Berkeley, San Francisco, and Palo Alto, Calif. Now in its fourth season, the CSQ Salon Series features the masterworks of the string quartet canon as well as CSQ commissions.

Cypress Quartet members have received degrees from many of the world’s finest conservatories, including The Juilliard School, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, the Royal College of Music, the Cleveland Institute of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Indiana University. After a residency at the Banff Centre and a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Quartet Studies of the Aspen Music Festival, the Quartet coached intensively in London with the Amadeus Quartet.

The members of the Quartet play exceptional instruments: violins by Antonio Stradivari (1681) and Carlos Bergonzi (1733), a viola by Vittorio Bellarosa (1947), and a cello by Hieronymus Amati II (1701). The Cypress Quartet takes its name from the set of twelve love songs for string quartet, Cypresses, by Antonin Dvořák.


In his middle period, Beethoven had begun to explore more unusual harmonies and techniques than his audience was used to hearing, such as in the three “Razumovsky” string quartets of Op. 59. In his next foray into this genre, the String Quartet in E Flat, Op. 74, he returned to a more accepted style, perhaps in reaction to the puzzled reception his Op. 59 quartets had received.


The first movement starts with a slow introduction (Poco adagio). The passage is full of appoggiaturas (a brief clash that moves to a consonance), keeping the harmonic progression in suspense. The slow, quiet motion is periodically interrupted by sudden, loud chords, a contrast to which Beethoven returns later in the piece.

When the Allegro proper begins, the violin takes the theme, followed by the cello. Beethoven makes extensive use of pizzicato (plucked strings), including arpeggios (chords played one note at a time) that travel from one instrument to another. Although this technique was not at all uncommon in later music, such extensive use was quite innovative for the time, and earned this quartet the nickname “Harp.”

Beethoven is more noted for small motifs than for extended melodies, but the theme of the slow movement (Adagio ma non troppo) is a beautiful and lyric song played by the first violin. Starting in A flat major, it is repeated in the minor mode, and then again in major, with continuously flowing accompaniment. At times, the cello takes the lead, playing in its upper register so that its voice stands out. The movement’s last measures are marked espressivo e morendo (expressive and dying out) as the notes get quieter and sparser.

The third movement is marked Presto, and uses a format slightly different from the usual Scherzo—ABABA instead of ABA. If the rhythm sounds familiar, we should remember that Beethoven had written the Fifth Symphony (with its famous da da da DUM) only a year earlier. Like that symphony’s first movement, this movement is written in C minor, and maintains the force of its driving rhythm throughout.

The rhythm slows down, the music modulates back up to the home key of E flat, and the third movement ends on an expectant (dominant seventh) chord, after which the finale (Allegretto con variazioni) begins without a pause (attacca). The sprightly new theme is followed by six variations, using such techniques as staccato, triplets, syncopation, running ornamentation, and strong accents. The last variation becomes a coda that rises to a unison crescendo and then surprises us with a simple, soft ending.

George Tsontakis is a major force on the contemporary composition scene. He was the founding director of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble during the 1990s, and serves as composer-in-residence with the Albany Symphony, Bard College, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. He has won two Kennedy Center Awards, a Grawemeyer award, and the three-year Charles Ives Living given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to allow composers to concentrate on their music. His CD Ghost Variations was nominated for a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, and was the only classical recording cited in Time magazine’s 1998 Top Ten Recordings.

Through their “Call & Response” program (see About The Artists, above, for more information), the Cypress Quartet commissioned Tsontakis’ String Quartet No. 5 and most recently his String Quartet No. 6. This new work takes as its “call” chamber works by Schubert and Webern.

The first movement of String Quartet No. 6 (Stroph) borrows characteristics from both Schubert and Webern. Tsontakis thought of the opening line as a song, which he calls “an idiom where Schubert was king.” At the same time, he says, the first section “owes as much debt to Webern in its one-note-at-a-time melody, split among the four players. The result creates both line and harmony at once, with large intervals leaping, all within a gently introspective texture.”

Tsontakis says that the “call” of Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major, D. 887 influenced him to “respond” with “a Schubertian brand of melodic generosity, abstract ‘waltz’ feeling, often nostalgically endowed, sudden dynamic shifts, from lyrically light (if not thin) counterpoint to thick and bold chordal utterances.”

The work includes what the composer calls “lean, lilting, and sometimes hypnotic passages in 3/4 time.” In the second movement, Blaze, he describes a “tautly wound texture — a relentless scherzo of sorts but always liquid and flowing.” He says that the work “ends with a definite and dynamically-charged period — and that ‘period’ is one very much out of the nineteenth century model for a work’s ending.”

Despite his peasant origins, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák managed to acquire a solid musical education. He was fortunate in having the support of major musical figures of his day, including Smetana and Brahms, and he achieved worldwide success in his lifetime. The String Quartet in E-flat Major (Slavonic) dates from his nationalist period, when he honored his heritage by incorporating the fresh melodies, modal scales, and syncopated rhythms of Bohemian folk music into his compositions, while adhering to classical form.

The first movement (Allegro ma non troppo) has a lighthearted theme with a tripping decorative turn, followed by, and then combined with, a bouncy polka theme. Underneath the folk style melodies we hear the lush sonorities reminiscent of Dvořák's great supporter and mentor, Johannes Brahms.

The second movement is titled Dumka, which is a Slavic folk song form comprised of a slow lament followed by a section of fast exuberance. Originally, this was an elegiac form: mourning for the loss of the hero is inevitably transformed into the joy of celebrating his life. Even when the tune moves from minor into major, the melancholic nature remains until it is relieved by the Vivace section, a rhythmic Czech dance called a furiant. The slow and fast passages are then each reprised in shortened forms. Dvořák was among the first of many major composers to incorporate this Slavic genre into fine art music.

Several slow calls in the high voices are answered by the viola and cello, followed by a flowing line that fits the third movement’s title of Romanza. Dvořák combines a slow tempo, Andante con moto, with great richness of texture to give this slow movement intimacy as well as compelling forward motion.

In the Finale: Allegro assai, the music portrays the leaps and cross accents of Slavonic dance. The musical elements are combined in a brief fugato (a fugue-like passage), and the piece ends with a lively accelerando race to the finish.

All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg.
It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy, publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at miriam@hvc.rr.com.

Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg