Attending a concert can sometimes feel somewhat artificial: You go to a formal venue to hear musicians engaging in their art, in the company of hundreds (or thousands) of relative strangers — it is a highly contrived and manufactured experience.
Last Saturday’s Salon Series concert by the Cypress String Quartet was nothing like that.
The performance at the intimate auditorium of the Kanbar Performing Arts Center in San Francisco followed the conventions of a contemporary concert. But with the members of CSQ only inches away from an audience of friends and long-time supporters, the concert’s organic and direct personal impact increased dramatically.
CSQ, which consists of Cecily Ward and Tom Stone (violins); Ethan Filner (viola); and Jennifer Kloetzel (cello), had engaged their friends and colleagues Zuill Bailey (cello) and Barry Shiffman (viola) to perform the two string sextets that composer Johannes Brahms created as his Opus 18 and 36. 
Brahms wrote these sextets in 1860 and 1864-5 respectively. He was a perfectionist who was extremely self-critical as a composer. In his attempts to compose a string quartet — for many composers the highest and most difficult form of music writing — he found that he needed more options in harmony, color, and symphonic texture to express himself. With two violins, violas, and cellos each, the string sextet gave Brahms enough possibilities: He did not, indeed, publish the first of a total of three string quartets until his Opus 51, in 1873, claiming to have destroyed or abandoned 20 previous attempts.
With six hard-working, deeply engaged musicians literally at arm’s length, the atmosphere is thick with vibrating air; you can not only hear the strings resonating, but even feel the sound waves permeate your body, like music by osmosis.With six hard-working, deeply engaged musicians literally at arm’s length, the atmosphere is thick with vibrating air; you can not only hear the strings resonating, but even feel the sound waves permeate your body, like music by osmosis.
Also part of the experience is the extraneous sounds that musicians make when playing their instruments: fingers sliding across strings, the soft rustling of clothing or feet moving across the carpet, bodily gestures or intakes of breath for emphasis or phrasing.  
And then there are the eyes. Follow the musicians’ eyes and you follow the music and the instruments’ forever changing roles. Within Brahms’ musical fabric, they are constantly shape-shifting, moving from lead voice to rhythmic punctuation or countermelody, sometimes from one note to the next. This is especially prevalent in Opus 36, where Brahms’ writing is even more dense and complex than in the First Sextet, with its more Classical orientation.
Needless to say, this performance of both Brahms’ Sextets by “Cypress Plus Two” was one of the finest examples of chamber string ensemble playing I have ever attended; one for the history books and my list of personal favorites.
It is unfortunate and at the same time understandable that CSQ has decided to disband after 20 fruitful years of playing together, but most good things must come to an end.
Based on last Saturday’s performance and the plans for the months ahead until the farewell concert on June 26, CSQ is going out with a bang.

Native Dutchman Niels Swinkels is a freelance journalist, musicologist, and sound engineer. Before moving to San Francisco, he was the arts editor and senior classical music/opera critic for Brabants Dagblad, a regional daily newspaper in the Netherlands. As a freelance writer and sound engineer, he currently works for San Francisco Opera, KALW Local Public Radio, Elevation Online, Earprint Productions, and others.

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TROY — Friday's concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall was intended as a kind of prelude and kickoff for a weeklong workshop in August on the cello suites of J.S. Bach. But the main attraction was soloist Zuill Bailey. It would be easy to spend a week's time with him, no matter what music he wanted to play and discuss.


When Bailey chatted with the audience in between pieces, he was full of likeable good humor and fascinating historical tidbits. But more important was the gorgeous quality of his playing.

He opened, appropriately, with the Bach Cello Suite No. 1, moving through the long lines with a breathless ease and elegance. Practically every phrase had something both intimate and declarative, joyful and heroic.


Pianist Navah Perlman joined him for most of the balance of the program. The Brahms Sonata in E Minor, which came next, felt in certain ways like an expansion of the Bach, broader and more romantic, even more entrancing. Actually, in his remarks Bailey managed to reference all of the music on the program back to Bach. There's a lesson there about the primacy of Bach that most every musician would understand.

Perlman seemed a tad restrained in the Brahms, as if she was deliberately keeping one dynamic level down. But her sound as well as her mastery of thick and complicated passages came to the fore after intermission in the Mendelssohn Concert Variations. And in Chopin's Polonaise Brillante the two players showed a fine sense of partnership, sharing the sonic spotlight and exploring the music with a rollicking playfulness.

Yet the focus of the night was on the cello, and also on community. To highlight this, Bailey invited three of our region's finest players to join him — Erica Pickhardt, Petia Kassarova, and Andre Laurent O'Neill. They must have found a quick chemistry together, since they added a sizeable work to the program, Max Bruch's "Kol Nidrei." Bailey delivered the searing solo line as the trio supported him, playing the material originally written for full orchestra.

The quartet reassembled and returned to Bach for the evening's finale. It was an arrangement of a Pastorale, and brought to mind the lush and singing piece popularly known as the "Air on the G String."

Judging from this program, the adult students who come together with Bailey in August will be in for quiet an experience. Hopefully, the organizers will provide more opportunities for audiences to share the bliss.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.

Review: Williamsburg Symphonia delivers again in season finale


The Williamsburg Symphonia closed its music season in high style with a stylish program that was superbly handled by the musicians under the knowing baton of Janna Hymes. It was a program that was filled with listening pleasures of varied dimension.

In what is a broken-record observation, it is important to realize how fortunate we are to have such quality music readily available in Williamsburg. The impact Hymes and her orchestra have had on our community and its reputation as a go-to place for quality music is more than gratifying. The community support and the orchestra's growing outreach into the community truly enriches our lives.

The featured guest for the evening was cellist Zuill Bailey, a performer internationally noted for his superior playing abilities and, as at least one lady suggested and many more no doubt thought, his handsome presence. Bailey is considered one of the top cellists in today's market and he proved his standing in his performance of the Schumann Cello Concerto in A Minor.

The Schumann's four movements are played without break due to Schumann's dislike of the possibility of applause between movements. It often lends itself toward moodier moments, not surprisingly given his bouts with mood swings. Yet, there's an overall sense of optimism that prevails, buoyed by heightened lyricism and emotional drive.

The concerto is not a virtuoso piece but rather one resembling a dialogue between the instrument and orchestra. That said, it is not without technical demands, which found Bailey impressively handling running passages with fingers (and occasionally his full head of hair) flying. His masterful control of the instrument and the Schumann resulted in a performance of excitement, passion, soulful lyricism, especially in the slower section that approached moments of ethereal quality.

Hymes effectively created a perfect balance between soloist and orchestra, allowing a highly musical dialogue to develop, along with a strong emotional dimension.

He provided an encore of the Prelude of Bach's Suite No. 1. Whereas many treat these unaccompanied gems as technical exercises, Bailey brought to this brief movement an extraordinary lyrical and solo-inspired quality that was defining.

The program closed with a rip roaring performance of Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C Major, the "Jupiter." In short, it was a thrilling ride that thoroughly tapped into the work's elegance and excitement, offering a smashing close to another rewarding musical season.

Ensemble Music Society ends its 71st season reconnecting with the Ying Quartet and guest Zuill Bailey

No one pined for an encore after the magnificent second half of Ensemble Music's season finale Wednesday night at the Indiana History Center.

But an irreverent cap could have been put on the Ying Quartet concert by a string arrangement of the
The Ying Quartet with its usual current personnel
old chestnut "There'll Be Some Changes Made."

The second half — Schubert's magisterial two-cello string quintet in C — was intact, except for one of the changes. Second violinist Janet Ying has a shoulder injury, leaving two of the founding family members on hand: violist Phillip Ying and cellist David Ying.  Jessica Lee, second violinist of the Johannes Quartet,  sat in for her.

A permanent change in the other violin chair is in the offing. First violinist Ayano Ninomiya will leave at the end of the season, to be replaced by Indianapolis' own Robin Scott.

Zuill Bailey had a programming notion.
And guest cellist Zuill Bailey surprised everyone by stopping after the Prelude to J.S. Bach's Suite No. 3 in C major to announce that he felt more like playing the first of the six suites instead. He had visited Eskenazi Hospital that afternoon and played the G major for patients. "I want to start at the beginning of Bach's journey with solo cello," he explained.

Bailey also contributed the information (gleaned in part from John Failey, EMS president) that his 1693 instrument was formerly at home in the Budapest String Quartet, a 16-time guest of the society between 1944 and 1960.

The Matteo Goffriller instrument sounded magnificent throughout the suite. The Prelude, which Bailey noted often is greeted by sighs, unfolded in sigh-worthy fashion. (Peter Schickele used it in one of his classical mash-ups as accompaniment to "Brazil," best-known in Frank Sinatra's 1957 recording.) The Allemande was distinguished by its elegant trills and reflective separation of phrases.

His echo effects were often stunning: The first repeat in the Sarabande sounded like the melody, played the same way, coming from a neighboring room. The dance pulse in the two Minuets was gently impelled, with the second one going smoothly from piano to pianissimo in the repeat. The robustness of the concluding Gigue was rounded off with a graceful diminuendo at the very end.

On its own, the Ying Quartet offered Schumann's Quartet in F major, op. 41, no. 2.  The substitute member fitted right in with this stirring interpretation of a slightly mysterious work, full of elfin fancies and shadowy episodes, especially in the third movement.

The concert's piece de resistance was Schubert's Quintet in C major, D. 956, a summation of the short-lived composer's most searching yet cohesive chamber-music ideas. The work goes so many places harmonically and melodically, with such surprising yet effective changes of mood, that its length of nearly 50 minutes is no burden. Played this well, with Bailey and the Ying Quartet in perfect rapport, it was something special. An instantaneous, sustained standing ovation greeted its conclusion. Wonder after wonder was crowned with a dizzying coda nailed down by a grinding, minor-second, triple-forte unison.

How the Ying Quartet will look starting next season.
Many episodes, so brightly "sung" by the quintet, prompted the thought that with a longer life, more establishment connections and better librettos, Schubert would be known to us as one of the masters of opera. Those are three big "ifs," however. But it occurred to me that the stately first-movement melody initially presented by the two cellos, recurring in a first-cello/viola partnership, foreshadows a couple of the great tenor-baritone duets in Verdi (Don Carlo, Otello). The astonishing outburst in the middle of the slow movement seems an operatic ambassador-without-portfolio.  And the strangest "Trio" section of a Scherzo ever written, an episode seemingly wracked with pain, hints at some vast interior drama that must have gone to Schubert's early grave with him.

Suffice it to say that everything about the performance was exquisitely balanced and full-heartedly projected. Decorative elements were never mindlessly dispatched, and every transitional passage was treated as important (notably a soft, hesitant "walking back" of that stormy episode in the Adagio). Accents were vigorous and the phrases they punctuated overflowing with a take-no-prisoners zest. It was a performance that properly deserved to be called unforgettable.


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Zuill Bailey