Last night the Kanbar Performing Arts Center hosted the second of the three Salon Series (CSQ) concerts in the farewell season of the Cypress String Quartet, whose members consist of violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner, and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel. The program featured one of the more memorable attributes of CSQ, which is their capacity over their twenty years of performing as a group to play well with others. CSQ’s insights thus extended beyond the string quartet repertoire into other genres of chamber music, and the resulting concert experiences often conveyed the impression that these performances amounted to a new dimension of knowledge sharing for both CSQ and their guests.
Last night featured two such guests, violist Barry Shiffman and cellist Zuill Bailey; and the program consisted entirely of the two string sextets by Johannes Brahms. These were performed in chronological order on either side of the intermission, Opus 18 in B-flat major in the first half of the program and Opus 36 in G major in the second. These are both relatively early compositions. Opus 18 was composed in 1860 and was Brahms’ first piece of chamber music for strings. (It was also his second piece of chamber music, preceded only by the Opus 8 piano trio in B major.) Opus 36 was composed about five years later in 1865.
By way of historical context, 1856 was the year in which Robert Schumann died while confined to a sanatorium. 1859 was the year of Brahms’ brief engagement with Agathe von Siebold in Göttingen. It was also the year in which he gave the first public performance of his first piano concerto (Opus 15 in D minor), also the first time one of his orchestral works was played in public. 1862 was the year in which Brahms first visited Vienna, which would become his base of operations for the rest of his life.
It may seem odd that Brahms’ first strings-only chamber composition should be a sextet. However, 1859 was also the year of his second serenade (Opus 16 in A major), which was scored for a chamber orchestra. Brahms was clearly cultivating a talent for working with multiple domains of activity, so to speak. He developed a facility through which melodic passages would migrate smoothly from one instrument to another. As a result, Opus 18 sees a continuation of Brahms working with that technique, deploying subsets of the instruments in different combinations and establishing thematic content across the full range of registers. By the time he advanced to Opus 36 (whose subtitle happens to be “Agathe”), Brahms had also extended the more “conversational” dimension of his technique, now elaborating his themes through exchanges and interruptions. Whether this dynamic rhetoric is a reference to Brahms’ turbulent relationship with von Siebold is left as an exercise for the listener. (It is also worth considering that the more mature compositional techniques of Opus 36 may have had an influence when Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed his sextet, the Opus 70 “Souvenir de Florence.”)
Thus, in both of these sextets, the “action,” so to speak, does not neglect any of the six instruments. This was particularly clear last night in the intimacy of the CSQ “salon” setting. One was readily aware of how the act of listening was enhanced by a visual element, not only through greater awareness of who was playing when but also through the recognition of the exchange of cues through body language and eye contact. In other words one could appreciate the full richness of CSQ’s skill in playing with others, visually as well as audibly.
Last night provided a vivid reminder of just how compelling CSQ could be in conveying the very sense of making music, leaving some of us to wonder just who will be picking up such a fundamental ball in experiencing music in performance in San Francisco.