Quartet gives sensitive reading

Schubert, Tchaikovsky played with compassion

Review

January 11, 2001|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

All knowledgeable musicians know intellectually that the compositions of Franz Schubert are imbued with the spirit of song.

But the minute many modern interpreters get their hands on his music, they head straight for the jugular with slashing attacks, inelegant minuets and ungainly crescendos popping up anywhere and everywhere.

One of the nicest things about the Ying Quartet, which performed Saturday evening at Smith Theatre in Columbia under the aegis of the Candlelight Concerts Society, is that it kept dear Franz's Opus 125 true to scale; poised, charming and eminently singable.

Mind you, I heard no lack of intensity from the three brothers and their sister. The opening Allegro moderato had plenty of youthful zip to it (Franz was a teen-ager when he wrote it, after all); and there were more than a few rambunctious moments in the Scherzo as well.

But unlike some quartets who muscle up to make Schubert sound like Beethoven at the zenith of his brusqueness, the Yings kept it sweet and elegant.

In Tchaikovsky's sprawling, lugubrious E-flat minor Quartet - this will never be mistaken for my favorite work in the string chamber genre - the Yings attacked it with commendable sensitivity and passion. Lighter elements in the second movement were brought out beautifully, as were the Russian chants intoned by the strings in the sad, churning Andante. Elsewhere, it was Tchaikovsky who had me checking my watch from time to time, not the playing.

Timothy, Janet, Phillip and David Ying, who are the String Quartet in Residence at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music, took Saturday's concert as an opportunity to present portions of string chamber works crafted by three contemporary Chinese composers. "Musical dim sum," violist Phillip Ying called the programming, to the delight of the large Smith Theatre audience.

Each piece was presented with complete idiomatic assurance, as Western and Eastern sounds and styles blended in the spirit of cross-cultural expression.

A pair of movements from Chou Wen-chung's "Clouds" had the players summoning the evocative sounds of Chinese string instruments via a staggering array of bowings, varied vibratos, slides and tone colors.

Chen Yi's vivacious single-movement "Shuo" juxtaposed the sounds of improvised vocal patterns with the rustic flair of Chinese folk songs.

A movement from Zhou Long's "Poems from Tang" had the Yings rhythmically slapping their instruments, scratching out harmonies in the manner of a Chinese zither and spinning out gorgeously ethereal melodic lines, all to give musical life to an ode to an old fisherman dating from eighth-century China.

The cold and flu season is upon us, but as much as Saturday's coughing spasms made the theater sound like the waiting room at Lourdes, I can commend Candlelight's audience members for the obvious respect they extended to this unfamiliar fare and to the gifted siblings who shared it with them.

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