The Ying Quartet at the Southern

Last night the Ying Quartet played the opening concert of the 2009–2010 Season of Chamber Music Columbus. If you live in central Ohio and have not availed yourself of the opportunity to go to one of these performances, I highly suggest that you make efforts to get to one (I will hopefully be at many, if not all).

Before the performance began, Emily and I were looking over the schedule for the season and in particular discussing one of the upcoming CMC concerts featuring John O’Conor on piano (3/6/10). One of the potential difficulties of listening to an evening of piano music is that it can become tiresome with the lack of variety in terms of timbre and dynamic envelope available to the pianist. Whereas many other instruments and the voice can vary these parameters in a variety of different ways, the pianist makes musical gestures out of a different set that, for example, includes intensity of attack, but not dynamic envelope.

This is worth mentioning as these thoughts were fresh in my mind as the Ying Quartet began Schumann’s Quartet in A Major, op. 41, no. 3. I was amazed at the unity of interpretation and technique with which the ensemble played that might only be expected by a solo pianist—only now, with a wide range of expressive timbres and dynamic possibilities. Granted, it might have something to do with the fact that the ensemble only recently added Frank Huang (violin) into what has been an all-sibling quartet since 1992. That said, it is hard to imagine such a unified sense of time, as is necessary for a movement such as the delightful variations in the Assai agitato second movement. [As a side note: I was particularly drawn to this movement and recognized some familiar metric displacements that were similar to those used in my own quartet writing last year. I figured that I must have studied it around that time, but as I look at the score today, I do not think that I have ever seen it before. Perhaps I had heard it somewhere? Either way, I must say that I enjoy the scherzando-like way in which each figure reaches across the barline and never literally articulate the meter.]

The ensemble also played a recently commissioned piece, Next Atlantis, by Sebastian Currier involving electronics that for the most part depicted water sounds of various sorts. Phillip Ying, the violist, took the opportunity to explain the piece ahead of time, which initially suggested to me that they figured it might be a hard sell to an audience that is not only unfamiliar with electroacoustic music, but also predominantly interested in the classics of the Western repertoire. He also noted that it was a first for the ensemble, as they had never worked with prerecorded material before. In the end, I suspect the announcement might have been more related to the latter as I consistently felt slightly on edge as I attempted to discern the relationship between the live and prerecorded materials. It was only by the end that I really felt like the two were dove-tailing, as I suspect was intended throughout. It was hard to tell what was at the root of the slight delays and awkward silences that were making me uneasy. I did not necessarily hear a great number of audible cues in the prerecorded materials, yet the ensemble seemed to be locking in with certain acoustical events that were surprisingly aligned. On the other hand, it was hard to imagine that the incredibly unified voice that played the Schumann would now seem somewhat misaligned as it worked together with the tape.

My initial impressions of the ensemble as an incredibly unified voice were reconfirmed by the performance of Beethoven’s Quartet in C major, op. 59, no. 3 to end the concert. They launched into the fastest rendition I had ever heard of the final Allegro molto while maintaining an utter clarity and preciseness that was remarkable. As scalar fragments passed from one player to another, I could hardly believe that I entirely missed the switch-off—every single time. Also notable was the ensemble’s great sense of what might be termed by some the grande ligne or by others the Urlinie: while each note was precisely in its proper place, they all signaled the overall directionality that pointed to the final cadence. This was perhaps most noticable in the final moments of this piece as Beethoven delays the cadence through one false ending after another until you lose any surety of when the cadence might actually arrive.

The Ying Quartet definitely lived up (and perhaps even surpassed) the high expectations I have for the artists that Chamber Music Columbus hosts each year. Even as think about how much I enjoyed watching them live at the Southern Theatre, I am already looking forward to seeing the Jupiter Quartet on November 7. I hope to see you there!

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