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Shanghai Quartet adds to China connection

  • Jul 9, 2008
The excitement of the Olympic Trials and the accomplishments of our China-bound athletes may have grabbed most of the headlines last week, but a quartet of musicians from China proved that performances of chamber music, in the right hands, can be as engaging as athletic feats. The Shanghai Quartet, which has been in residence this week at the Oregon Bach Festival, offered a less boisterous kind of experience Monday evening. But to music lovers, an exciting, world-class experience just the same, when they brought their extroverted style of playing to the Hult Center’s Soreng Theater. The foursome opened with Samuel Barber's String Quartet in B minor, Op. 11, written when the composer was 26 years old. The quartet's outer movements are little known, but the middle adagio, in the composer's string orchestra arrangement, is familiar to everyone. Since the Adagio for Strings is so much a part of the American musical landscape - and the repertoire of movie soundtracks - no one can hear the middle movement of Opus 11 without thinking of the lush sounds of Barber's more familiar version. But given the right ensemble, the listener can appreciate the quartet's Adagio on its own terms: a romantic elegy, but one more immediate and intimate than the more popular one. Certainly the movement gave each of the players - violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras - an opportunity to play with perfervid expressivity and glowing warmth. The Shanghai Quartet made a forceful, compelling case for the opening "Molto allegro e appassionato," a neoclassic sonata movement built largely around a forceful, angular statement, as well as the concluding "Molto allegro (come prima)," a movement that has always disappointed me, as Barber never really develops the musical material. That said, the Chinese group certainly dispatched the brief finale with panache. It was of course fitting that an American work should be followed by a Chinese work. The quartet offered three selections from "Chinasong," a collection of folk songs and songs composed in the traditional style, as arranged by the quartet's own Yi-Wen Jiang. In "Yao Dance," the most interesting of the three, a soulful, lyrical melody contrasted with a frenzied dance tune. The movement afforded the players many opportunities to demonstrate a host of string instrument effects, and showcased both the sensitive and the explosive sides of their playing. While I admired the musicianship exhibited in the reflective "Shepherd's Song" and the lively "Harvest Celebration," I found these two movements came up short in musical substance. Following intermission, the four presented the capstone work of the evening: Maurice Ravel's Quartet in F. Like the Barber quartet, this one is an early work, and the Frenchman’s only contribution to that genre. From the first bars of the opening movement, it was clear that the Shanghai ensemble is as much at home in Ravel's Gallic language as in any other. Sudden changes in texture, dynamics and mood abound. Not only could the members of the quartet turn on a dime, but they could do so without interrupting in the least the musical flow - no small feat in this work. Beneath the pizzicato notes of the second movement, Ravel marked dynamic levels ranging from pianissimo to fortissimo. The Shanghai Quartet took the composer literally, and with the four playing in perfect synchrony, the result was thrilling. The slow movement provided yet another opportunity for each musician to demonstrate the warmth and vibrancy of his playing and for the ensemble to sculpt the movement as a moving and poignant statement. The finale served as a vehicle for what Shanghai probably does best:play with propulsive energy. But the composer juxtaposed brash outbursts with soft, introverted statements, and at every turn the group exhibited extraordinary control and complete unanimity. Enthusiastic applause brought the ensemble back for an encore: the"Romanza" movement from Edvard Grieg's Quartet, Op. 27. While the level of playing remained high, I was disappointed by the choice of this banal, yet relatively lengthy, movement to end the evening. Terry McQuilkin, an adjunct instructor of composition at the University of Oregon, reviews classical music for The Register-Guard.