5 questions to Jennifer Kloetzel (cellist of the Cypress String Quartet)

On April 19, 2013, the Cypress Quartet will perform its 2013 Call & Response program, featuring a world premiere by Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon: “In the Shadow of Sirius,” based on poetry by W. S. Merwin. We asked 5 questions to Jennifer Kloetzel, cellist of the Cypress String Quartet.

What is the idea behind your Call & Response series?

Call & Response is a multi-disciplinary program performed by the Cypress String Quartet each spring. By asking the question “What inspires composers to write music?”, the project features three aspects of the quartet’s interests: Performance, Commissioning and Education. Each year the quartet chooses a theme and a few works from the standard quartet repertoire and puts out a “call” to a living composer to “respond” to this theme with a new work for string quartet. Past themes have included Literature, Exoticism, Art and Inspiration by Example. The program includes a large educational outreach program throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, with at least two dozen free performances in schools and cultural centers including libraries and cafes. The culmination of the Call & Response program is a concert which features the world premiere of the commissioned work, and includes many of the students from our outreach in the audience, along with a regular chamber music concert goers. The purpose of Call & Response is to create new and diverse audiences for chamber music, to heighten and enliven the concert experience for all, to commission fabulous new music and to show that music is an ongoing process of inspiration. This year is our fourteenth annual Call & Response, and we are very proud of the program. It’s a highlight of our year!

Cypress String Quartet - Photo by Gregory Goode

Cypress String Quartet – Photo by Gregory Goode

This year—and for the second time—you will be premiering a new commission by Jennifer Higdon. How did your first collaboration influence your work on the upcoming premiere?

It is always a gift to work with a composer on more than one piece of their music; it feels like a lot of the work to understand the new composer’s voice and style has already been done. The whole reason we are drawn to a composer is that there is something about their musical voice that we find compelling, so you can imagine that we want to commission many of our composers over and over again! In Jennifer Higdon’s case, we spent a number of weeks together in 2003, when we commissioned her for Call & Response the first time. The “call” in 2003 was the pairing of the Debussy and Ravel Quartets, and her “response” was the wonderful quartet titled “Impressions” (2003). We have performed “Impressions” for many years and recorded the piece (on the Naxos label), so we are familiar with how she treats our instruments and the string quartet, and we have some sense of what she might mean by particular articulations or rhythmic patterns. She has also become a friend of the quartet, so we are quite comfortable asking her any questions and offering ideas of our own in our work on this piece.

One of the string quartet’s characteristics is its homogeneity of timbre across registers. In your opinion, how does Higdon—often praised for her colorful writing—express her personal palette in this format?

In the two works Jennifer Higdon has written for us you can hear a unique blend of lyricism and rhythmic complexity that seems to closely reflect her own voice and personality as you might experience in conversation with her. Originally from Tennessee, Jennifer Higdon sports a beautiful, deep southern drawl, yet she speaks more quickly than you would have imagined possible–an unusual combination that, like her music, draws you in and forces you to focus differently. Her quartet music is full of life, though it can certainly feel breathless–she talked about “explosions of color” in the outer movements of “Impressions”. Her new work for soprano and string quartet, titled “In the Shadow of Sirius” covers a lot of character territory, sometimes playing the quartet and soprano off of each other, sometimes integrating them to create a new kind of five person instrument. In this new piece we also find “bursts” of colorful expression, unmistakably Jennifer Higdon’s sound world! Her harmonic language is modern and edgy, yet also completely accessible, often revealing a stunning moment of harmonic simplicity when you least expect it.

Jennifer Higdon and Beau - Photo by Candace di Carlo

Jennifer Higdon and Beau – Photo by Candace di Carlo

What are you pairing “In the Shadow of Sirius” with on your April 19 concert?

For this year’s Call & Response concert, we are pairing Dvorak’s “The Cypresses” (12 love songs for string quartet) and Schubert’s “Rosamunde” Quartet in a minor with the new Higdon work. The theme is “Poetry & Music: A Love Story” and looks at how poetry inspired these three composers to write music. Dvorak initially wrote a set of 18 songs for voice and piano, called “The Cypresses”, which were never published. He came back to them later in his life and set 12 of them for string quartet—the melodies (which were setting of poems by the Moravian poet Gustav Pleger-Moravsky) remain intact, but the accompaniments were changed and thoughtfully orchestrated. In Schubert’s case, poetry was a huge influence in his compositions (he wrote over 600 songs, which I think proves that point!) In the case of the “Rosamunde” Quartet, he not only quotes the incidental music that he wrote for the play “Rosamunde, Princess of Cyprus”, but he quotes two of his own songs (poems) in other movements–Goethe’s “Gretchen am Spinrade” in the first movement and Schiller’s “The Greek Gods” in the opening of the third movement. Jennifer Higdon chose respond to these older composers in her own way by setting five poems from W. S. Merwin’s collection “In the Shadow of Sirius”. In this case, we will hear the words, sung by the amazing soprano Christine Brandes.

You seem to be very open about your “apprenticeship” (you coached with the Amadeus Quartet in London) and your influences (Cleveland and Juilliard Quartets). Is it important to find your place in the string quartet tradition?

Well, we never actually had an “apprenticeship” in the traditional sense. Because we come from four distinctly different backgrounds, and the quartet did not form in the cradle of a conservatory environment, we sought out experiences early on to have together as a group. The seminars we attended with the Amadeus and Juilliard Quartets were particularly important to us as we forged our distinctive quartet identity, though nearly all of the work we did was on our own, rehearsing together for five to six hours a day, six or seven days a week in those first years, reading through Bach Chorales, deciding on what was musically important to us to share and what we wanted to focus on (aside from the compelling need to play Beethoven and Bartok!) After nearly 17 years together, we have premiered or commissioned over 30 works, have released 14 albums of music (with many more to come), and feel as if we have found our place in the world. Keeping this art form vital is a key to the future!

Call and Response 2013
Friday, April 19, 2013 at 8pm
Herbst Theatre | 401 Van Ness Avenue | San Francisco, CA
Tickets: $35 in advance, $20 for students at or 415.392.4400.