Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Cypress Quartet at Lebanon Valley College

Thursday night was the first time I’d heard the Cypress Quartet outside the old Next Generation Festival concerts. The first time had been twelve years ago at the very first “Next Gen” when they played the Brahms Piano Quintet and gave an amazing performance of Beethoven’s A Minor Quartet, Op. 132. During the years in between, there were maybe two other performances I heard and many that, because of my work schedule, I missed, though there were also a few recordings to savor as well.

So while I’ve heard them grow over the full extent of their career, it has not been a consistent sampling. But one thing has certainly been consistent: their continued growth as an ensemble. I don’t know how many times they’ve come back to Lebanon Valley College to perform, a relationship that also began as part of the Next Generation Festival, but people around me last night were saying “they get better every year.” I may not be able to vouch for the “every year” part but I would certainly agree with the “get better” part.

This concert included three works – Haydn’s last completed quartet which, I discovered, I was actually hearing live for the first time (even with recordings, I don’t think I’ve heard it more than once or twice: I certainly wasn’t familiar with it); Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge (very familiar), the original finale to one of the Late Quartets; and Debussy’s only quartet (which, frankly, I’d heard so often before, I was not looking forward to hearing it again).

What I enjoy about this ensemble is the way they get “into” the music and bring out more of it for us to listen to, not just “wow, they’re really INTO it” (though, yeah, that, too).

How is that different from any other string quartet? It’s just four people, right: you put two violinists, a violist and a cellist together in the same room, have them play a piece of music and there it is, right?

Well, not exactly...

Contrary to what people may think, groups like this don’t always just get together when they’ve got a gig: some ensembles may spend a week getting a program ready; others play together full-time. When you play with the same people every day, year after year, and often play the same basic repertoire on your programs, you become familiar with how your colleagues are going to think and you have the luxury of getting beyond “just playing the notes.” This is the luxury of a full-time professional quartet, but also a challenge.

Talking with second violinist Tom Stone after the performance last night – our first conversation twelve years ago had been over an after-concert drink, talking mostly about Alban Berg’s “Lyric Suite” – he mentioned how they were not like a lot of quartets who were put together in school or at a summer music festival (or, for that matter, like the Ying Quartet, three brothers and a sister who all grew up together in the same family). They were free-lance musicians who needed to make a living but decided to make the commitment to making this quartet work by dedicating lots and lots of time – like rehearsing six hours a day – to reach that goal. And this is, after all, their “day job.”

The Debussy Quartet was on their very first program twelve years ago, he said in remarks before they played it. There was so much in the piece they discovered while first working on it – though he said jokingly, looking back at his colleagues, “that first performance was... uh, was kinda rough...” And ever since they’ve kept coming back to it and discovering more.

However many times they’ve played it in the years in between - and recorded it - this was the first time I’d heard them play it. It sounded to me like they were approaching it with the same excitement they’d have after having just discovered it for the first time. Except for one thing: they weren’t playing it like everybody else. They were bringing to this overly familiar war-horse something that often gets lost in the “yet-another-performance” syndrome that affects many performances and listeners – the “here-we-go-again,” “dig-out-the-tried-and-true” approach that, regardless of technical flawlessness, never manages to get beyond the surface of the music.

It’s not one of those things you can easily put a finger on, much less describe in words (not that that’s going to stop me). Without a score in front of me, could I say they were doing it correctly when others were not? Or were they adding things not in the composer’s written-down intentions that other groups hadn’t thought of? How much of this was their own interpretation – and how much “interpretation” is beyond what the composer called for or, at least, implied?

Ever since I was a kid learning to play the piano, I’ve heard the expression “the music lies between the notes.” It’s not just getting your fingers in the right places at the right times, playing the right notes in the right rhythms. Learning how to make music out of all that, finding what’s between those notes, is the performer’s real challenge, and then completing the equation by communicating that to the listener.

A lot of this, a would-be musician learns by listening. The problem is too often young musicians imitate what they hear rather than thinking it out for themselves. And too often this is reinforced by teachers or other performers. If it’s one option, that’s fine, but even as a conducting student I was told the tempo I was taking at the beginning of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture was too fast. “But,” I argued, “Beethoven writes in the score Sostenuto which is not a tempo” (it means sustained). “The real tempo comes in later – the beat pulse here should be the same.” “Yes,” he countered, “but I’ve never heard anyone take it that fast.” He indicated what he thought was a suitably slow tempo. “But that’s not what Beethoven wrote in the score.” Fortunately, I found a recording – by Toscanini, for better or worse – that took the faster tempo I was arguing for. “Well,” he said begrudgingly, “okay...” Was it Toscanini, today often held up as a bad example, who declared “tradition is only the last bad performance”?

Rather than examine the score (the printed music, what the composer wrote), too many performers today listen to recordings (how what the composer wrote is interpreted) and then pick and choose what they feel best suits them. Imitating a performance might let a student know how it could go – since there’s really no single way it SHOULD go – but it doesn’t help a student figure out WHY it could go that way.

That’s what I liked about what I heard the Cypress Quartet doing with the Debussy.

Too many performances and recordings I’d heard play the piece as a lushly romantic wash of pretty sounds: Debussy, after all, was an Impressionist, a pigeon-hole he never liked but since it reminded people of those Impressionist painters of the day, there was no way to avoid it.

Debussy was also a slow, painstaking composer who agonized a long time over whether to use this chord or that chord. It’s got to be more than he was just unwilling to make a commitment: he was probably looking for the best sonority for that moment, not just slap-dashing notes down on the page because “oh, that sounds nice!”

Debussy has never been an easy composer for me to love: certainly, I like a lot of his music but it never really spoke to me. Part of this may be because he is, despite his dislike of the painterly term, a composer inspired by the visual element. Most of his pieces have titles that suggest or prompt certain images in the listener’s mind, whether it’s a garden in the rain or a child’s toy. I am not a visually oriented person so it’s quite possible that’s why much of his music eludes me. As a like-minded friend of mine once put it, “I like La Mer: every time I hear it, it’s like hearing it for the first time,” but in the context and tone of voice implying it is also immensely forgettable.

But his only String Quartet, written in 1893 (the same year Brahms was writing his last piano pieces, Op. 118 & Op. 119, by the way) is simply that – an abstract string quartet where the movements are indicated by tempos like Animé et très décidé, not “Reflections of Moonlight on the Steps of the Temple.” But then, this is considered “Early Debussy” despite the fact he was 30 – making, I guess, derivative juvenalia like his Piano Trio written at 17 “Pre-Early” – yet all that is fairly relative when you consider when he wrote two of his more famous pieces: the piano piece Clair de lune from the Suite Bergamasque predates the quartet by four years; the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was written the following year. Between these picturesque pieces, a string quartet, considered a German form in late-19th Century France, could seem the Odd-Piece-Out.

The Sonata Form was also essentially a German Form. And French composers felt, perhaps out of patriotism as much as anything, that it needed to be adapted their own way. French taste shied away from such Germanic things as fugal counterpoint (what Satie called “sauerkraut”) and the obsessive development one finds in so much German music: they preferred melody and color, perhaps, over rigidity of form and harmony.

But this is also part of the French Personality, more laid back and laissez-faire compared to the German (and specifically Prussian) attitude toward detail, exactness and promptness (a friend of mine from Berlin would be pointing excitedly at his watch because we were now two minutes late) . Ned Rorem would break everything down to be either French or German along similar guidelines, even other national stereotypes: the Japanese, to him, are German and the Chinese, French! (Think about it...)

So the French took their Sonata Form and put less emphasis on the development section and crafted memorable melodies that would come back in other movements – forgetting that Beethoven had done the same thing in a few key works like his 5th and 9th Symphonies – something they called “cyclical form,” even though it’s not really a form but a structural device to unite a multi-movement work. Part of the problems Germanic listeners have with this technique is that “it’s just the same tune!” They expected something to have “happened” to the theme by then, becoming transformed – you know, the way Mahler does in his symphonies (“good German symphonies, Mahler,” you could almost hear them adding).

So it’s surprising to realize that Debussy builds almost everything in this four movement work out of four basic pitches – G -F - D- F# – a motive which lies behinds the themes. Consciously or not, these various themes will all sound different but still connected. There’s a subtly here that manages to create a great deal of variety while using the same material – things keep coming back in slightly different ways but it all sounds like something cut from the same cloth.

Debussy was famous for having flunked his harmony class at the Conservatoire – giving generations of students, including mine, the courage to say “if Debussy could do it...” What these same students forget is that his teacher, after marking up his papers with tons of corrections and comments, could still admit “everything is wrong but he is talented, there can be no doubt about that,” a qualification that could not always be made about my students who also forgot that at the time Debussy was 12. He had, certainly, even then, his own ideas about things, but that doesn’t mean he discarded the use of Rules completely, just Those Rules.

People sometime object, consciously or not, to the “impressionistic” music of Debussy because it doesn’t sound like the music they’re more familiar with, not that it’s “ugly and dissonant,” just “unsettling.” Dissonant, perhaps, but in the sense that chords that (according to the old rules) need to resolve in certain expected ways do not. When you are using a scale that is not the same as the traditional major or minor scale, you create harmony that does not move in the same expected ways: if it’s the whole-tone scale which doesn’t include that interval, the perfect fifth, that is at the root of all Classical Harmony, you create chords that don’t even sound like they need to go ANYwhere. And so performers create a sound that becomes static and directionless, as if “forward motion” in music could not be accomplished in other ways.

What the Cypress Quartet does, examining the printed music in front of them, is find the ways that Debussy replaces these traditional “classical” expectations with his own, how he moves the harmony forward by creating certain consistencies (whether or not he’d think of them as “rules”) and how he builds toward climactic points, using rhythm, tempo, texture, even the register the instruments are playing in and of course elements of contrast. Suddenly I’m hearing “structure” where before it was just pretty shapes and images, as if this “skin” were not held together by muscles and bones.

And I’m sitting there thinking, “huh, Debussy with structure! Who knew?!” This is the first time I’ve heard the piece where I thought it was worth listening to. (But then, there may have been some “French” listeners in the hall who were squeamish because to them it was too pedantic, too... German!)

It’s not like this is a revolutionary way of looking at music. “Analyzing” is a term I dislike because it implies the psychological obsession with detail (as in “he’s so totally anal” which is not to imply he’s necessarily being an ass-hole) that so often loses the overall picture to focus on the minuscule. It’s not like other groups don’t do this: they just find something different or maybe, if they find nothing compelling, they just play it the way they’ve heard other people play it.

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When I was talking with Tom Stone after the concert about the Late Beethoven Quartets they’re in the process of recording, I asked how you deal with such saturation in a work that is as emotionally draining as, say, the C-sharp Minor Quartet, Op.131. In several of his last works, Beethoven creates a whole different world that is both universal and intensely personal, absorbing everything we experience and chewing it up in ways that don’t always get put back together. Finding the music between these notes often takes a heavy physical toll (playing that intensely for that long a period of uninterrupted time) as well as an emotional toll. He said, “it was like getting knocked down, emotionally, then pack up your instrument, go home and try to get some sleep. But eventually there comes a time when you realize, after a performance, you’re still standing and you begin to come to terms with this music. You begin to find other things in it that didn’t strike you before” (pun not necessarily intended). It’s not always this granitic, monolithic Beethoven – they’ve found humor in the midst of the turmoil (just as you might in real life) that could make their interpretations, here, kind of controversial when the recordings come out. We’ll see – the first in the series could be released this spring.

Not to ignore the fact they also played on this program, as I joked with them on Facebook, “a little Beethoven.” The Grosse Fuge is hardly “little” even though it’s ‘only’ a single movement. Originally it had been the finale of the B-flat Major Quartet, Op. 130 an already long and taxing work – for both players and audience – and somehow Beethoven, a stubborn man, was talked into replacing it with a new, easier finale, publishing the Fugue by itself as Op. 133. (As an encore they joked about playing the rest of Op.130, but then played just a short movement from it, the “alla tedesca” dance movement that balances the even briefer scherzo – which they said they chose just for me).

Even by itself, the Fugue is monumental. It still sounds very “contemporary” today, certainly atypical for 1826: what did listeners and performers make of this music then? What would the course of 19th Century Music have been like if this piece had become the standard that other composers imitated? It might make you think of Wagner or Brahms, but their music was 30-50 years down the road!

I’m listening to this and thinking more Ives and Carter, myself. One of the hallmarks of their very 20th Century styles was a “conversational” approach to the music, as if four people are sitting around the table, talking and arguing, more than a traditional “call and response” statement of themes, where a melody in the violin might be answered and expanded by the cello. Certainly, Beethoven’s players state, argue, re-state and expound on the opening theme, stated in unison at the outset like an agreed-on Topic-for-Discussion. And there’s humor here, too, for so dramatic a piece – after a long stretch of furious fortissimo followed by another long stretch of, by comparison, almost static pianissimo, you think an agreement has been reached and it’s about to wrap up but then suddenly someone adds a little something more and once again, bang, they’re off. Even the conclusion, once you finally get there, takes a while to conclude: and when it does it’s almost like they all agreed “enough!” and stop.

Another hall-mark of Ives’ and Carter’s styles is the juxtaposing of tempos, where one strand of the music moves as if at one speed and another moves at a seemingly different speed. You might hear almost clock-like ticking in a theme that sounds like it’s all quarter notes, but those quarter notes have nothing to do with the written beat. Beethoven does this by placing the “audible downbeat” off-the-beat which you’re not aware of until the other players come in, playing ON the beat. This is an old trick, perhaps – theorists of previous centuries called it “arsin and thesin,” where something you’d heard on the strong beat now gets placed on a weaker beat. If you’re in 4/4, the strong downbeat is on “1” but if you restate the phrase and begin it on “3" it has a different feel about it, especially if the other parts stick to the standard “strong-beat-on-1." Brahms might do this for a whole musical paragraph, placing that strong beat now on “4" or maybe even “4½” so that you feel you’ve dropped a beat somewhere: as it progresses, your sense of the downbeat has shifted aurally to what you hear (and you’re wondering what the hell’s wrong with the conductor), and then, bang, everything comes back to the standard “downbeat-on-1" and your toe-tapping is thrown off all over again. Beethoven is doing the same thing throughout this fugue and it makes the work rhythmically exciting because it’s full of these unexpectancies.

This theme in what sounds like square-cut quarter-notes is played against an almost convulsive backdrop of propulsive dotted rhythms that threaten to overwhelm the topic of discussion. The harmony associated with this – and the theme almost defies anything easily harmonizable – is also dissonant and hyperactive: at times, it’s like Beethoven is challenging you to “Find the Tonality.” What key are you in? Think so? Guess again - and off he goes. If people had trouble hanging on to old-fashioned tonality when Wagner wrote Tristan und Isolde 30 years later, this must have sounded like a wall of noise to people who still remembered when Mozart and Haydn were new!

When these great stretches of argument finally come together, the sense of everybody playing in the same chords on the same beats must have sounded like a great relief. But the quartet brings to these passages a sly wink, knowing in a second things will turn on a dime: just when you think it’s safe to relax, once more they’re off, dragging you right along with them. Even today, it sounds “really wild,” as I overheard someone say about it at intermission.

It amazed me, thinking back to that first encounter with this group, playing Late Beethoven (Op. 132) twelve years ago. They were about 8 or 9 months old as a quartet playing together, and yet they played that challenging work with a sense of depth and excitement that would have convinced they’d been playing together for years.

I still remember vividly from that concert back in 1997, a young boy (possibly not even 10 years old) sitting in the front row leaning forward in rapt attention, fully focused on the players during the long slow movement – the famous “Heiliger Dankgesang” or “Holy Song of Thanksgiving” – which, at some 20 minutes, has been known to test the attention span of even seasoned adult concert-goers. When it was over, he sat back in his seat and looked over at his mother with a wide-eyed expression that was clearly “Wow!”

Now, part of the appearance with the Cypress Quartet at Lebanon Valley College – it’s a residency, not just a recital – is their playing and talking to students and not just those at the college. Many in the audience were from high schools and middles schools who’d heard them earlier in the day: about a half-dozen came backstage with their teacher and were clearly very excited about having heard the concert, too. Friday’s events were to involve 500 kids (mostly middle school, from what I gathered) with a concert, lessons and “a practice seminar.”

This was one of the few classical music concerts I’ve ever attended – whether it was on a campus or not – where the average age was easily under 21. There were a lot more kids than middle-aged and senior adults. Would it ever be possible that might become the norm for the future?

With a group like this, with their commitment to reaching young listeners and with their compelling performances, it might just work.

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Following their second Lunar Tour, they’ll be back at Lebanon Valley College next year. However, if you don’t want to wait that long and you’re in the Baltimore area, the Cypress Quartet will be playing this same program to open the concert series at the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Sunday (tomorrow) at 3:00!

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