Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Cypress gives world premiere to Tsontakis string quartet

By Richard Scheinin
From A+E Interactive (Mercury News blog) - Monday, May 01, 2006

Over the last year, I’ve spent more and more time listening to music by the composer George Tsontakis. It’s remarkable stuff: darkly beautiful; dodging expectations; spider-spinning small amounts of musical material into big spacious works. If you haven’t heard his third and fourth string quartets (there’s an excellent recording by the American String Quartet on New World Records), you should. The music, composed in the late ‘80s, is by turns somber and gorgeously lyrical: Melodies flare up, riffs leap out. Its mood and vocabulary are to a degree reminiscent of late Beethoven; not so much because Tsontakis pirates anything from Beethoven, but because he somehow projects a similar sense of fragile thankfulness and robust yearning.
I talked by phone with Tsontakis a couple of weeks ago – he is composer in residence at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley – and he is not, on the face of it, a heavy “spiritual” kind of guy. He’s a character; doesn’t seem to take himself overly seriously, disparages the priestly somberness of the classical music scene, doesn’t even think of himself, at heart, as a composer. He’s designed his own house, drives a backhoe, and acts in regional theater productions. “I think of myself as a guy who composes, as opposed to just a composer, and I think that’s helped me to keep my sanity,” he said. “When I go to talk to students, I tell them, `Expand yourself. Don’t just be this small, tunnel-vision composer. And you probably will be a better composer by not limiting yourself and your persona to being a composer.’ It’s very ancient Greek, maybe; you have to round yourself off.”
The strategy seems to work for Tsontakis, who last year was awarded the Grawemeyer Award in musical composition, which comes with a $200,000 award and is arguably the most notable award of its type in the world. Other winners have included Pierre Boulez, Gyorgy Ligeti, John Corigliano, Tan Dun, Thomas Ades, and John Adams; the crème de la crème. Before receiving the award, Tsontakis had been commissioned by the Cypress String Quartet, long based in San Francisco and for several years in residence at San Jose State University, to compose his first new string quartet in nearly two decades. (His first two, by the way, haven’t been recorded). It has arrived: His String Quartet No. 5, “In Memoriam: George Rochberg,” is one more Tsontakis piece that settles you down, quiets you, makes you grow roots and experience its dark, engaging beauty.
On Friday (April 28) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum in San Francisco, the piece had its world premiere. The Cypress gave it the performance it deserves, taking the listener into a beautiful, quiet, phosphorescent bubble. The piece – and the quartet’s performance of it -- can’t help but come into its own with more performances. (Its second, which I didn’t attend, was the night after at San Jose’s Le Petit Trianon). Still, it was all there to hear: the music is fragile, yet earthy, with background and foreground sliding about, shifting roles. There’s trancieness; lyricism, with arching themes that might have pleased Rochberg; a sense of stasis descended from Debussy; spacious harmonies that bring to mind Messiaen. And, all the while, that spider-spinning of small motives into a large wispy web, which is reminiscent of Beethoven’s methods – and his obsessiveness.
The Cypress had commissioned Tsontakis to “respond” to Beethoven’s “call” as part of its annual Call and Response Project, in which it commissions living composers to answer the messages of past masters. It has done this for seven years with seven composers, and this is the fourth time it has included Beethoven as part of the call: “His music is timelessly awesome,’’ cellist Jennifer Kloetzel told the San Francisco audience, which included about 200 kids, or half the crowd. The demographic made the concert all the more refreshing: The kids (who had already attended some of Cypress’s Call and Response outreach events in Bay Area schools) would sit through a pair of Beethoven’s late string quartets, the C-sharp minor, Op. 131, and the F Major, Op. 135. The last two major pieces composed by Beethoven before his death in 1827, they are sublime works filled with pleading tenderness, metaphysical struggle and a glint of humor. They would be followed by the new one from Tsontakis. Talk about pressure.
The Cypress isn’t a flashy quartet. It’s meticulous in the best sense; devotion leads to insight. Its members love and respect the music they play and that comes through in its performances, which have real strength of character and get at the subtle textures in the music. It began Op. 131 with a prayerful sigh, then entered the famous slow fugue. There were some exquisite, translucent textures and, as the quartet moved through 131’s seven seamless movements, there was Gypsy-esque fiddling by first violinist Cecily Ward and vinegarish tugs and pulls within the music, acknowledging its unique awkwardness. The Cypress gamely explored Beethoven’s palette of effects – the delicacy, the scratchiness, the otherworldly harmonics, which sometimes sounded like the tee-heeing of angels. (This palette is a big influence on Tsontakis). After the piece’s rip-snorting ending, the young people in the audience didn’t wait a second to respond with whistles and cheers.
Op. 135 was even better. The music’s inner tensions – note against note; echo following echo – were more sharply defined. In the second movement, the super-rugged riffing of Kloetzel, second violinist Tom Stone and violist Ethan Filner beneath Ward was eruptive. In the third, Ward’s violin seemed poised at the cusp of love and pain. Time slowed as she, Stone and Filner then balanced themselves around Kloetzel’s long tones. The finale, moving between extremes of vigor and quiet, was beautifully measured and dosed out. There was a round of pixie pizzicato near the end. Magical. Tsontakis was going to have to follow this?
Introducing his piece, he said, “I was kind of thinking we’ve heard enough music and we should all go home now.” He also back-stepped by saying that, unlike some of his earlier quartets, the new one “doesn’t have much to do with Beethoven; no more than the average person is inspired by Beethoven.” Still, in a pre-concert talk, he had mentioned Beethoven’s “poetic lyricism” and penchant for “breaking out of the square forms” of the classical tradition. This breaking out was a form of “letting go,” very Eastern, said Tsontakis, who directed a Greek Orthodox church choir for 15 years. There is more than a bit of Byzantine drone in his own music and a sense of falling out of linear time that can be felt in late Beethoven, in Debussy, in Messiaen. There is also a “poetic lyricism.” In fact, Tsontakis likens the two movements of his new quartet to “two poems with one meaning.” He says they can be played interchangeably.
The Cypress chose to play them in order. The first begins with a rich, charged chord and opens into a brief, Romantic theme, almost overwrought, before bending back toward a more somber energy, a softer lyricism, and, in the spirit of Beethoven, echo following echo. Filner, who has a subtle buttery sound on the viola, began a steady trilling of sixteenth notes, which would become the work’s signature (and most obsessive) motif, moving by step or half-step and sounding like a memory of – or, yes, a “response” to – the ever-trilling, climbing-toward-heaven segments in Beethoven’s late works. There was a soothing, almost nostalgic feeling to these passages, the trilling imperceptibly shifting between background and foreground, overlaid by, or trading places with, those arching lyrical themes. The language was delicate, translucent, at times sensual, loaded up with ghost-note harmonics. Soon, time slowed (more echoes of Op. 135). There were Messiaen chords, then a fugal-ish echoing of themes, and Ward’s trills, climbing and leading into a slow-spinning chorale, truly beautiful. It felt like a trip through a variety of dream states, all described in the composer’s instructions in the score: “Deeper and more mournful… Plaintive… Hypnotic, austere… Brushing, gently…. A mysterious hesitation.” The hall was pin-drop quiet when the movement ended.
The second movement arrived with a permutating four-note pattern in the second violin, the first violin flying above, cello and viola meeting lushly below. The music was achieving a sort of Romantic beauty, but reduced, thinned out to essential elements – fierce and fragile and, again, in its own way, like Beethoven. After a time, there was an interlude of lines moving in mysterious relationships, floating, tangling and leading one another about. That sense of stasis happened again in this private music, with sturdy chords and gentle notes barely rubbing into dissonance, then sliding apart into lyricism.
Midway through, the movement meandered, lost focus. Where was the tension? Was it missing in the notes themselves? In the performance of the notes? Regaining urgency, the Cypress built toward a climax, backed away, opened into a new melody, grew trilling and tremulous, swelled like Debussy, became very, very quiet, and seemed to say, “I am alone in the universe.” The piece ended on a question mark. Muted. Unresolved. Inviting us to come back and hear it again.

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