SAN FRANCISCO -- The Cypress String Quartet plays the usual Beethoven and Dvorak. But since 2000, the San Francisco-based group has also been on a mission -- to build a "living repertory" by commissioning new works, one per year, generally, from composers it admires. To be clear: from living composers. Not many other ensembles show a similar commitment to keeping chamber music fresh and relevant.
The centerpiece of the mission is the group's annual Call and Response program, in which the chosen composer "responds" to the "call" of composers from the past. Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts (both Pulitzer Prize winners) stand out among the many Cypress-selected responders. So does George Tsontakis, whose String Quartet No. 5 "responded" to late works by Beethoven in 2006 and whose String Quartet No. 6 (responding to Schubert and Webern, also on the program) was premiered Friday by the Cypress at the Marines' Memorial Theatre.
Like other works by Tsontakis, this one is warmly shadowed, lyric yet somber. It's exuberantly rhythm-driven, yet also behaves as if suspended in some free-floating chamber, where time doesn't even exist. It's hypnotic, a work of imagination, a fascination.
Among American composers -- he is 62 and lives in upstate New York -- Tsontakis has taken his own path. You don't hear Minimalist pulsing in his music.
You don't hear the turn-back-the-clock yearnings of Neo-Romanticism.
Instead, you hear a connection to Messiaen's stasis and spaciousness, to Webern's concision, to Beethoven's way of spinning cells of material -- melodic gestures and figurations -- into large-scale organic structures. Tsontakis is part of a lineage, but, when compared to his contemporaries, it's almost as if he is composing in a vacuum.
Consisting of two movements, titled "Stroph" and "Blaze" and totaling about 20 minutes, String Quartet No. 6 went straight to the mystery zone.
The Cypress (violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, cellist Jennifer Kloetzel) introduced the brief opening song: a "one-note-at-a-time melody," Tsontakis calls it in his program notes, "split among the four players."
Each note arrived as a free-standing gesture; stark and packed with import in the manner of Webern. At the same time, sneakily, the various gestures accumulated and grew into surprising shapes: organlike sonorities or textures that swayed or oscillated like jellyfish. As this phantasmagoria evolved, individual lyric voices leapt out with commentary: Ward's rhapsodic violin, Kloetzel's luxurious cello. Here was the lyric element; echoing Schubert, perhaps.
We were being taken on a trip.
"Blaze" began with repeating three-note figures; it sounded like the beating of wings. There was a lush undercurrent of cello and a sky melody for Ward, the first violin. And then began the trilling of sixteenth notes, moving in major seconds (a gesture that echoes Tsontakis' String Quartet No. 5).
With these flurries came a sense of varying motion: blazing ahead, while simultaneously slowing, like swimming underwater. During the recapitulation, heading toward the wavelike conclusion, the Cypress jumbled the rhythms; this is a complicated piece and will require more than one performance to get it straight. But String Quartet No. 6 is a typically intriguing opus from Tsontakis.
(Another new work by Tsontakis -- this one composed for the St. Lawrence String Quartet and soprano Jessica Rivera -- will be premiered April 25 at the Sunset Center in Carmel and April 27 at Stanford University's Bing Concert Hall.)
The 15th annual Call and Response concert began with works by Webern. The compressed gestures of his Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5, were especially well executed; this was an exquisite set of Viennese miniatures.
What: New work composed for St. Lawrence String Quartet and soprano Jessica Rivera
When: April 25, Sunset Center, Carmel; $15-$56, chambermusicmontereybay.org
Also: April 27, Bing Concert Hall, Stanford University; $10-$75, http://live.stanford.edu
More Cypress String
What: Works by Schulhoff, Haydn and Dvorak
When: May 9, David Brower Center, Berkeley; May 10, Joe Henderson Lab, SFJazz Center, San Francisco; May 11, Woman's Club of Palo Alto
Tickets: $50; cypressquartet.com