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Editorial

Beethoven Pops Up All Over Town

by Larry R. Larson

Cypress String Quartet performs “Beethoven in the City,” 16 free concerts throughout San Francisco in a farewell “tour around town.”

“We’ve been forged in the fires of Beethoven,” declares Jennifer Kloetzel, Cypress String Quartet cellist. After a distinguished two-decade run, the Quartet—whose other members are violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone and violist Ethan Filner—is capping its legacy with a series of free concerts across San Francisco under the umbrella title “Beethoven in the City.” “Not a week has gone by in the past 20 years that we haven’t played, talked about, rehearsed or recorded this music,” Kloetzel says.

The series comprises 16 string quartets of Ludwig von Beethoven that span the composer’s life. They are arguably the most intimate and personal of his works, offering a spiritual journey of Western culture. Cypress will play each of the quartets in a “pop-up” concert in 16 different locations in the city.

Because these string quartets are among the most rarified of Beethoven’s work, one wouldn’t expect to hear them in such informal environs. But the Cypress Quartet has been turning convention on its head since its inception. Fresh out of school 20 years ago, Quartet members painstakingly recorded Beethoven’s Opus 135, his very last, as its first release. Artists traditionally wait for the “ripeness of age” to tackle these works, music that profoundly embodies the human spirit. “People thought we were crazy,” Kloetzel recalls. As it turned out, bringing a fresh, young perspective to this music brought its own rewards. “By the time we got to Beethoven’s first quartets, we could hear the germs that would later flower into the last quartets,” she explains.

And, true to form, Cypress’s final recording was of Opus 18 number 1, Beethoven’s first string quartet. Last fall in Vienna, the Quartet had the honor of playing this music next to the room where the original handwritten parts were on display. Somewhat less traditionally, the Beethoven performances can also be heard on the current season of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” in which the Quartet plays a renowned part of Opus 130. Their recording of the complete Opus 18 quartets will be released on AVIE records this month.

The pop-up sites were carefully chosen to take place in each of San Francisco’s 11 legislative districts, with the first scheduled at St. Anthony’s Dining Room in the Tenderloin and the last at Yerba Buena Gardens as part of the the Gardens’ six-month outdoor festival. The concert in City Hall will be enhanced by the building’s superb acoustics. A San Francisco General Hospital concert focuses on Opus 132, a work that famously includes what is now known as the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” music Beethoven wrote in gratitude for his recovery from a life-threatening illness. He is said to have wept as he composed it.

“Beethoven in the City” is an ambitious project, intended, Kloetzel says, “to share this music with our home.” Performing in 16 sites required identifying appropriate locations, getting permits and other time-consuming tasks, in addition to the physical and emotional challenge of preparing to play a literal lifetime of music over the course of two weeks in different venues, all with varying acoustics and requirements. The project is a kind of Beethoven Olympics, requiring practice, skill, endurance and performance under pressure.

The Quartet is also bringing its distinguished 20-year career to a close after performing in the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Along with “Beethoven in the City,” the musicians will perform a farewell concert in the Green Room at the San Francisco War Memorial on Sunday, June 16, the 20th anniversary of its first concert.

May 4 ? 19, various locations.