Some classical music concerts are organized around anniversaries. Or musical eras. Or countries. Or simply because one piece is long and another is brief. But some concerts are organized around inspiration. On March 17, Wellesley College will host such an affair, a performance by the Cypress String Quartet based on the music of Brookline-based composer Elena Ruehr.
Some classical music concerts are organized around anniversaries. Or musical eras. Or countries. Or simply because one piece is long and another is brief.
But some concerts are organized around inspiration.
On March 17, Wellesley College will host such an affair, a performance by the Cypress String Quartet based on the music of Brookline-based composer Elena Ruehr. The quartet will perform not only Ruehr’s string quartet “Bel Canto,” but also songs of Barber, Schubert and Puccini that inspired her (with soprano Andrea Matthews), as well as Schubert’s great quartet, “Death and the Maiden.”
If those aren’t enough artistic reference points, the whole process began with Ann Patchett’s novel, “Bel Canto.” It’s part of a circle of influences and admiration that Ruehr refers to as “a sense of the past and the present intersecting.”
Cypress actively commissions work as part of its mission, and for the past decade has included one composer each year in its “Call and Response” program, which examines the relationship between music and literature. They worked with Ruehr in 2004 on her fourth quartet, and were so enamored of the collaboration they invited her to write another quartet.
“They wanted me to respond to a string quartet, in this case ‘Death and the Maiden,’ but also wanted to explore the relationship between text and music,” Ruehr says on the phone from her home in Brookline. “I’ve set so much poetry to music lately that I wanted to use a novel. I’m a fan of Ann Patchett, and I thought that I could turn ‘Bel Canto’ into something interesting.”
But the inspirational road stretches even further back than that.
“There is this song, ‘The Crucifixion’ by Samuel Barber [part of his famous cycle, The Hermit Songs], that my mother used to sing to me when I was young,” Ruehr says. “She loved folk music, and I’ve had this little song in my head all this time. I added songs from Dvorak, and Schubert and Puccini, and started to play with them and change them, and slowly they started to feel like characters in the book.
“In the end, I came up with nine short movements, and a 10th that develops and covers the ending,” she adds. “It’s a more narrative work than I’ve ever done, and I hope that through the musical threads, the story will be pretty clear.”
Ruehr realizes that there will be “different kinds of listeners — those that know the songs, and those that know the story, but also those that don’t. Even though it does refer to other music, it still has value, especially if you imagine it as characters in a story. It’s about capturing the story in snapshots.”
Cypress’ cellist Jennifer Kloetzel says that the group knew it wanted to commission work right from the time it first formed.
“We were all drawn to the classics,” she says on the phone from her home in San Francisco, “but we also knew that we wanted to make sure that the string quartet form stayed current. There are so many composers we want to champion. Every week we get MIDI files and scores to listen to. We listen to them without knowing who they are, and when we all agree on someone, then we try to work with them.
“Working with living composers has really given us insight into Beethoven’s music, and others,” adds Kloetzel. “When they’re working with original materials, some composers change a lot of things, and some change nothing. We loved Elena’s work the first time we commissioned her, and now she’s writing a solo piece for the first violinist and a solo piece for me, besides this new quartet. She’s really captured the essence — she’s creating characters out of the music.”
Cypress String Quartet
Music of Ruehr, Schubert, Barber, Puccini and Dvorak
Wednesday, March 17
Houghton Chapel, 106 Central St., Wellesley