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    Monday, January 29, 2007

    Inspired By America Reviewed

    “Multi-media 'Inspired by America' Premieres at Lied”
    by Chuck Berg (Topeka Capital Journal) 1-29-07

    As the house-lights faded to black, the hauntingly astringent strains of the molto adagio from Samuel Barber’s “Quartet, Op. 11” served notice that the Cypress String Quartet’s world premiere of “Inspired by America” was going to be unique.

    Opening a concert in pitch black darkness -- and with a slowly unfolding and mournful movement at that -- was a bold move. For Friday night’s crowd that had come to Lawrence’s Lied Center on the strength of the Cypress String Quartet’s reputation as one of chamber music’s hot young ensembles, it was a gambit that worked.

    Formed in 1996, the San Francisco-based foursome of violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone, violist Ethan Filner and cellist Jennifer Kloetzel displayed great poise and panache. While turning even the most difficult phrases with virtuosic aplomb, it was the group’s tonal warmth, musical breadth and ESP-like phrasing that carried the day.

    The Quartet was in top form as it navigated masterfully through more than a dozen selections ranging from traditional fare such as Dvorak’s “American Quartet in F” to modern works by contemporary American composers Benjamin Lees and Dan Coleman. Regardless of style or period, the Quartet successfully found and transmitted each composition’s emotional core.

    Structurally, “Inspired by America” is a spirited conversation between music, spoken word and film. On a large screen at the back of the Quartet, we “met” author Jacob Needleman who, drawing on his book “The American Soul,” offered insightful portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas.

    In contrast to the hagiographic tendencies of much popular history, Needleman’s probes did not shy away from the great contradictions of the American story including, as one example, Jefferson’s roles as freedom-fighter and slaveholder. While also pointing to the inconvenient truths of the Native American genocide and slavery, Needleman cited Douglas’s call to conscience as a basis for continuing the challenge of righting past wrongs and moving forward with hope for all.

    These difficult yet inspiring commentaries were dramatically amplified in an adroitly assembled pastiche featuring works by U.S. composers and, in the case of Dvorak, a noted European inspired by American music. At opposite ends of the emotional-thematic spectrum, Charles Ives' “Hope of the World” and Elena Ruehr’s “Red, for solo violin” provided pitch-perfect correlatives to Needleman’s poignant narrative.

    The production’s thematics were further italicized by effectively edited film collages by Emmy Award-winning director Michael Schwarz, whose archival montages included historical paintings, newspaper headlines, and clips from movie newsreels.

    Judging by the audience’s enthusiastic applause and lively exit conversations, it was clear that the poignantly thoughtful “Inspired by America,” by moving beyond greeting card sentimentality, more than hit the mark.

    Kudos to the Cypress String Quartet and its worthy collaborators, and to the Lied Center for its part in co-commissioning this bold new work.

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