The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts of Lincoln MA sponsored “Music from around the World” at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory on Saturday night, drawing from four parts of the globe. An ad hoc ensemble of Boston-based chamber musicians alongside the Ying String Quartet gave fine performances of Randall Thompson, Samuel Barber, Shih-hui Chen, Joaquín Turina, and Felix Mendelssohn.
The patrons milling about in the NEC lobby were not your garden variety Saturday night concert crowd. The Foundation supports performers and composers of Chinese, Taiwanese, Chinese-American, and Taiwanese-American ancestry, so it comes as little surprise that Jordan Hall had four generations of overseas Chinese milling about, chatting in a mix of English and Mandarin. And if you listened in on conversations more closely, you might find that the charming, grandmotherly woman to your left could make pianistic mincemeat of Chopin and Liszt in her day. And in contrast to your average list of performer’s biographies (read them here ), a surprising number of musicians on stage last night had Ivy League or M.I.T. degrees, and often in distinctly non-musical fields. There were also musical tourists, snapping pictures of the inside of Jordan Hall to document an exotic trip, and even the occasional Caucasian further to diversify the crowd.
The evening began with brief remarks by violinist Lynn Chang (張萬鈞), in which he traced the four countries (U.S.A., Taiwan, Spain, and Germany) on three continents that would provide the evening’s music. Then the Ying Quartet appeared with music of the United States, starting with Randall Thompson’s Alleluia. This unaccompanied choral work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky for the Tanglewood Music Festival in 1940. Its slow build of energy and emotion, ebbing and flowing like waves but rising to a climactic high tide, all on the single word, “Alleluia,” has made it Thompson’s most popular work, a staple of school commencements and choirs all over the country. The quartet apportioned the choral parts in a straight soprano-to-first violin, alto-to-second violin, tenor-to-viola, bass-to-cello arrangement. The performance showcased the Ying Quartet’s strengths, including a beautifully balanced ensemble, faultless intonation with ringing overtones, and admirable ensemble. The middle strings duetted beautifully under the first violinist’s tune, and the group managed the Stringendo acceleration to the climax in an organic, seamless fashion. The closing seven part chord was thick with hushed overtones and brought the motet’s great arch to a gorgeous close.
Violist Phillip Ying, one of the founding siblings of the Ying Quartet, then spoke about the Thompson and the second piece, Samuel Barber’s String Quartet Op. 11, Barber recognized the famous Adagio as a “knockout” composition whichhas become an American anthem in its arrangement for string orchestra. The Ying Quartet opted to place this and the Thompson Alleluia in juxtaposition as two seminal American works (they are included together on the group’s CD of American Anthems). The Yings then launched into the published version of the quartet, where the third movement finale is a brief recapitulation of the opening movement. This opening movement began with a sweeping, lockstep, homophonic opening statement, then dissolved into incisive, defined, rhythmically dense counterpoint, played with breathtaking clarity by the Yings. Their newest first violinist, Ayano Ninomiya, kept the fifths ringing in her part. The chorale-like second subject was played in lovely balance, led by violist Phillip Ying. Phillip handed a soulful, aching melody to his brother, cellist David Ying. David was one of the treats to watch this evening, as he actively locked glances with the other members of the quartet and provided a full, brilliant cello to anchor the quartet’s sound. A crunchy tone cluster dissolved into homophony, then the first movement disappeared with a whisper.
The Adagio has become a classical staple because of the same tide-like build in emotional intensity as the Thompson Alleluia, and thanks to this it has been part of countless funerals and soundtracks. The Ying Quartet expertly managed the slow build in intensity and volume, and the seamless handoff of the tune from first violinist Ninomya to violist Phillip Ying to cellist David Ying. Precision tuning caused chords to peal with overtones and make the ensemble sound bigger than it was, and the cathartic, heartbreaking climax was even more poignant, because it came from four individuals playing their hearts out, rather than the anonymity of a massed string orchestra. Then, the movement receded into hushed nothingness. After that, the brief recapitulation of the opening movement came as welcome, modernist relief.
After a seating rearrangement, Lynn Chang returned to the stage with music from Taiwan. Returning Souls (讓靈魂回家) consist of four vignettes for solo violin written by Shih-hui Chen (陳士惠) as part of the soundtrack to a documentary of the same name by Hu Tai-li (胡台麗). Chen and Hu were on hand to introduce the documentary, which concerns the Amis, a Taiwanese aboriginal tribe. Their ancestral home was destroyed by Typhoon Winnie in 1958, and three carved pillars with images of key ancestral legends were moved to the Taiwanese Institute of Ethnology for safe keeping. The documentary ( here ) tells the story of young Amis who sought the return of the pillars and rebuilt the ancestral house with the help of Ami shamans. The four movements of Returning Souls draw inspiration from an improvised song from one of the shamans and describe the legends carved into the pillars. There followed a screening of a trailer to the movie. Then Chang played the solo violin pieces while a synopsis of the legends were projected onto a screen covering some of Jordan Hall’s organ pipes. I can’t say that I grasped exactly how the four pieces captured the legends described, but they’re certainly challenging pieces to play, with the left hand scooping up and down the length of the string and plucking the string in alternation with holding it down for bowing, moments where both hands alternate in pizzicato playing, and perpetuum mobile string figures worthy of Prokofiev. Chang looked quite focused and intent as he delivered the pieces, and worked up quite a sweat playing them, though the technical challenges were delivered in a way that made everything sound deceptively easy.
Chang returned with pianist Ya-Fei Chuang (莊雅斐), violist (and his daughter) Jennifer Chang, and cellist Carl Ou ( 歐逸青) for music of Spain, the Piano Quartet in A minor, Op. 67 of Joaquín Turina. This three movement work reflects Turina’s French training and Spanish background, though on the whole, I wasn’t struck that it’s his finest work. Thematic material was played first by homophonic, unison strings, then echoed and elaborated by the piano, and this sort of repetition seemed to form the structure of every movement. The playing was fine, with solid unison string playing, effortless sounding rapid-fire exchange of pizzicato figures, lovely vanishing plucked endings to movements, and authoritative playing by Chuang. Chang played a memorably intense solo in the beginning of the third movement, and Ou was as much fun to watch as David Ying, peering at her colleagues with the same hawk-like intensity and using her entire body to form the cello sound, swooping around with her left arm to round out the tone. But the phrasing and melody missed Latin flavor, impeccable as the ensemble may have been.
After an intermission, the scene shifted to Germany with Felix Mendelssohn’s youthfully exuberant Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20. The Ying Quartet lined up on stage right, with Boston-based violinists Amanda Wang, Lynn Chang, violist Jennifer Chang, and cellist Carol Ou deployed on stage left. The cellists were seated, all other string players stood. In the opening movement, violinist Ayano Ninomya shone, providing the lead for the ensemble with aplomb and assurance, but never dominating the proceedings and leaving plenty of room for other players to shine. Ninomya, violinist Janet Ying, and violist Phillip Ying dovetailed in deft contrapuntal bliss. After an exposition repeat, the development featured sharp dynamic contrasts and nifty antiphonal effects between the Yings and the Boston players. The recapitulation featured a lovely viola duet between Phillip Ying and Jennifer Chang. The slow movement’s characteristic moment, where one string enters a whole step above the previous string, was played with exquisite tuning, and Jennifer Chang offered a vibrantly present syncopated and triplet ostinatos. The third movement offered seamless rapid fire exchange of the dense counterpoint, made all the more exquisite at the end when it was done with quiet, hushed excitement and vanished like a will-o-wisp without losing core tuning. The finale provided more lovely ensemble, particularly from the Ying side, and brought the concert to a thrilling conclusion. But for all the precision ensemble and enviable tuning, something seemed missing. In a work where I’ve felt performers on the verge of leaping out of their chairs with ecstatic joy (try the Columbia recording of a Marlboro Festival group with the Guarneri Quartet to hear what I mean), I was struck that in this performance, nobody was smiling, and no one seemed to be having fun. That said, the audience did seem to enjoy things and gave the performance a warm ovation.
The Ying Quartet moves on to concerts in Alabama and Oklahoma, returning to New England for the Bowdoin International Music Festival in Maine at the end of June. The Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts returns with pianist Meng-chieh Liu (劉孟捷, no relation) playing three Schubert sonatas at Jordan Hall on Saturday, April 13.