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MUSIC REVIEW

Unconventionally inspired look at U.S.

Cypress String Quartet's multimedia concert offers both a celebration and a critique.

June 25, 2007|Richard S. Ginell | Special to The Times

When you spot a program of Americana on the boards this close to July 4, chances are good it will be a flag-waving whoop-de-do. But the Cypress String Quartet's "Inspired by America" -- seen for the first time on the West Coast at the Ford Amphitheatre on Friday night -- breaks that mold decisively.

It's not a tub-thumping patriotic ode, nor is it a rant from the blogosphere. Rather, "Inspired by America" is a thoughtful, often somber 90-minute multimedia meditation on the ambiguity of what America means -- the promise and the dark realities that have subverted that promise.

It is also a sampler of the Cypress' Call & Response project, in which the foursome commissioned American composers to write responses to various classical works, excerpts from which were scattered throughout the program.

"The whole world once loved America," author Jacob Needleman intoned on film after the quartet had played the slow movement from Barber's String Quartet (best known in its orchestra version, Adagio for Strings) in the dark -- a melancholy tip-off of what was to come.

The theme of ambiguity eventually crystallized in a heart-rending question: "If America loses its meaning and becomes the dominant cultural influence of the world, what will become of the world?"

With American landscapes, old photographs and founding documents filling the screen, Needleman profiled various historical personalities while not forgetting to point out certain unexplainable contradictions: Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves, for example.

As Needleman reeled off a list of Benjamin Franklin's talents, we heard the simple yet confirming strains of Franklin's own string quartet. Recordings by Charles Mingus underscored other parts of the film; at one point, his sauntering jazz seemed to mock the Constitutional Convention.

The Call & Response excerpts from Jennifer Higdon, Dan Coleman, Benjamin Lees and Elena Ruehr were mostly in sympathy with Barber -- both lyrical and introspective. Lees' will-o'-the-wisp scherzo from his Quartet No. 5 was the sole exception here.

The most exuberant homegrown sounds came from Ives' String Quartet No. 1. And irony of ironies, the music that best symbolized American optimism (the "American" Quartet) was written by a visiting foreigner, Dvorak.

The pacing of this show could use some tightening -- less talk by members of the quartet (or perhaps confining it to the beginning), less time consumed by tuning (unavoidable, perhaps, in the unpredictable outdoors), more integrated interweaving of the musical segments and the film.

Yet as a whole, "Inspired by America" works -- another indication that multimedia projects such as this (including previous efforts by the Emerson and Takacs quartets) can genuinely revitalize chamber music presentations.

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