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Café Concert: Cypress String Quartet

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Video: The Cypress Quartet Performs in the WQXR Cafe

Even in a classical music field infatuated with anniversaries, the 15-year mark can be a knotty matter for a touring ensemble. It's not as splashy as ten or twenty, and doesn't have a meaning attached to it like the diamond or silver. The San Francisco-based Cypress String Quartet turns 15 this year with an unusual venture: a nationwide radio tour. The ensemble joined us in the cafe as part of the first leg of that journey to perform music by Beethoven, helping to cap WQXR's Beethoven Awareness Month.

To support the radio tour, the group started an  account on the funding Web site, and set a goal for $2,000. It currently has 11 backers and has raised over $1,000. "We live in San Francisco so we can't leave any bit of new technology stone unturned," said Tom Stone, the group's first violinist. 

The Cypress has long used the kind of DIY approach more common among indie rock bands than chamber groups. They came together in 1996, not as an outgrowth of a music conservatory program, as many quartets are, but through an open casting call. "The other violinist and I both studied with the same teacher and we had the idea that when we finished school we'd put a quartet together," said Stone. "We talked to Jennifer [Kloetzel, the cellist], who is recommended to us by a mutual friend, and talked to her about this crazy idea we had."

The crazy idea, said Kloetzel, was "there was no job and no guarantee. We were all finished up with grad school. I had friends in New York who said, 'if you do this you're going to fall off the face of the earth.' It was a leap of faith for all of us."

The members all moved to San Francisco and started rehearsing together in living rooms and garages for five hours a day, talking about their dreams and surviving on Ramen noodles. By mutual agreement, they didn't take other outside work, in order to stay fresh and focused for quartet rehearsals. And perhaps most unconventionally, the group didn't hop on the competition circuit, generally considered a direct career springboard for string quartets. "The first couple years were hard," Kloetzel said. "But eventually callbacks started to come in."

She added: "At this point in our lives we were chomping at the bit to get out there and sink our teeth into Beethoven together."

In those early days their approach emphasized passion over strict discipline, said Stone. "Now we're more interested in the form and the bigger picture," he said. "As we've matured and gotten to know the pieces better we've backed up and our vision of them is broader in a way." In March the quartet will release the third in a three-volume set of recordings of Beethoven's late pieces.

Since its early days, the Cypress has released 13 albums and worked regularly with living composers -- commissioning over thirty works together, and often pairing new pieces with old favorites. Stone noted that two high-profile premieres are on the docket: a new work by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon (October 2012) and another by the New York composer George Tsontakis (2013).

Given that string quartets are famously fractious organisms, the Cypress has one strategy for maintaining good rapport: staying in hotel rooms far apart from one another. "It really is annoying being in a hotel room next to a colleague and they're practicing and you're trying to nap," said Stone.

Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text: Brian Wise