Sunday, October 3, 2004
The chemistry of a contemporary West Coast string quartet can teach us something about a 150-year-old decision that kick-started the Bleeding Kansas era.
At least that's the estimation of New York composer Dan Coleman, who was co-commissioned by the Lied Centers of Kansas and Nebraska and the Cypress String Quartet to write a symphony to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The San Francisco-based quartet will premiere the work Oct. 10 in Lawrence. Just as Sen. Stephen Douglas, author of the 1854 bill, believed in popular sovereignty, Coleman and the foursome have discovered the value of maintaining the quartet's four distinct instrumental voices.
"There are times when the most important thing is NOT to make a compromise but rather to accentuate the differences between the people in the quartet, and that's a more meaningful statement than to try to be homogenous," Coleman said last week on the phone from San Francisco, where he and Cypress members were fine-tuning his String Quartet No. 2. "That's something that, I think, speaks to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
"It wasn't necessarily a glorious moment in American history, but it does speak to the idea of whether certain compromises are worth making and what's the most important decision to make."
Coleman's 25-minute quartet ends in a lot of question marks, he explained. Musically speaking, he said, the four-movement piece contains placid moments that dissolve into ambiguous phrases.
"That relates to a moment in American history when there were a lot of important questions that maybe were best left unanswered," he said. "Maybe a third way was the best approach."
Coleman approached his second quartet -- as he does all his commissions -- as a means to tell a musical story, he said. But he also had the players in mind. Coleman has worked with Cypress String Quartet -- Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violins; Ethan Filner, viola; and Jennifer Kloetzel, cello -- on several occasions. In fact, he wrote his first quartet for these very musicians.
The quartet's "musical friendship" with Coleman began at Juilliard, where he and Kloetzel both studied in the early 1990s. Cypress String Quartet formed in 1996. The composer characterizes the group's sound as slightly atypical.
"One thing that a lot of American quartets have -- almost as a cliche -- is that they tend to sound sort of lean and mean and athletic and a little bit based in the violin," Coleman said. "This quartet has more of a European sensibility of the lower voices being equal with the upper voices. Everyone is going to play a dramatic role in shaping the music."
As for the musicians, they love Coleman's second quartet.
Cypress String Quartet
"When we got this new piece from Dan, there was a sense of excitement and wonder," Stone said. "But at the same time, we're very familiar with his voice and his style, so it's almost like approaching an old friend when we get his new music."
"We liked the piece right away," Kloetzel added. "As we take it apart and get to know it, it's very rewarding. There's a lot to chew on. It's not something we want to play once and then put away."
On the road
There's no danger of that happening anytime soon. The quartet embarked Thursday on a national tour that will take it to upwards of 10 cities by the end of the year. In Kansas, the group's second stop, the musicians will complement their Lied Center performance with 10 days of residency activities in Lawrence, Iola and Winfield.
The group will be working with students of all ages in those communities. It's important, quartet members said, to reach a diversity of audiences with their music. And that includes young people, who, conventional wisdom has it, aren't interested in classical music.
But Kloetzel said the quartet's experiences flew in the face of such generalizations.
"I find that when we go into schools with music, especially the more contemporary music, kids are really excited by the energy they hear in this music," she said. "The children are really open to classical music, and especially when they're not just hearing it in an elevator or as background music but they're meeting us and we're talking to them about the music, too."