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Sonic Light from Chinese Chamber Players


“Light and Shadow” at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall Saturday night was sponsored by the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts, a worthy non-profit organization devoted mainly to boosting young Chinese musicians and artists. The pianist and three string players who appeared in various combinations through the evening were well beyond boosting.

First on the program was the familiar Mozart Duo for Violin and Viola No. 1, K423, notable for its contrapuntal playfulness. The duo is one of two such pieces Mozart dashed off during a visit to Salzburg in 1783 to introduce his new wife Constanza to the paterfamilias. Scholars disagree on the oft-told story of Mozart slipping his two duos secretly to Michael Haydn to help him meet a crucial deadline. As the program cautiously put it, “perhaps true, perhaps not”.

Featuring the lyrical talents of violinist Nai-Yuan Hu and violist Scott Lee, the piece opens with a stirring allegro that allows the two players to intertwine in spiral mode. In the adagio, the viola takes the lead but soon passes it back to the violin. A vigorous rondo allegro rounds out the piece as the players trade voices, merging in unison and parting ways repeatedly. The patrician Hu and the wildly emotive Lee reversed the typical personalities of their respective instrumental types.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Sonata for cello and piano No. 2, opus 58, composed for his cellist brother Paul, allows the piano and cello to perform as equals in this lively pairing so carefully balanced. The startling full-bore opening in allegro assai vivace by Tsang’s powerful cello established themes and moods to follow. Tsang’s playing, reflected in his telegraphing smiles and frowns, was something close to exquisite. But the most interesting movement to this reviewer was the second, which sets off in allegretto scherzando with Liu’s lively piano theme, echoed in pizzicato by the cello. Soon Tsang took over with a second theme backed by Liu’s lush yet transparent playing. The extended molto allegro vivace finale recalls Mendelssohn’s classic “Spinning Song” from the Songs Without Words, as the tempo increases to feverishly.

After tearing through Mozart and Mendelssohn in two pairings, all four players returned to the stage, very much on form, with a superb performance of Gabriel Faure’s Piano Quartet in C Minor, Opus 15, the highlight of the evening.

With storied Meng-Chieh Liu at the piano and his three partners, cellist Bion Tsang, violist Scott Lee and violinist Nai-Yuan Hu, this ad hoc but very simpatico group of established pros played as if they had been touring together for years. In fact they had recently played the same Faure in Chicago and Dallas, and the experience showed.

It is worth noting that this quartet almost never happened. Only with the support of the French National Music Society created by Saint-Saens in 1871 to spotlight young composers did Faure set to work on it.

The foursome launched into the quartet with an allegro molto moderato piano theme soon taken up by the violin, then passed around and developed by tout l’ensemble. The scherzo changes the mood to a delightful, spirited solo piano opening echoed by pizzicato strings. The theme and its echo recur twice as the scherzo races on.  A deeply emotional adagio follows, richly melodic, finally giving way to the surprisingly big sound of the allegro molto finale. By the end, a listener to these seasoned players is virtually floating airborne.

Perfection of ensemble is not all that matters, even though we got a successful marriage of four strong personalities whose individuality was not subsumed: Liu was the expansive visionary and colorist, Hu the bel canto singer, Lee the Ethel Merman (“Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better”), and Tsang the dominating swashbuckler.

The poetic title for the evening, “Light and Shadows,” deriving from Chinese characters meaning light that penetrates deeply as through water, leaving a lasting impression, was chosen to reflect the power and durability of the repertoire.

Under the determined direction of Cathy Chan since 1989, the Foundation has supported any art that is Chinese. Last night the Sino-connection was the players’ backgrounds, since the repertoire was entirely European.

Michael Johnson is a former Moscow correspondent who writes on music for the International Herald Tribune, Clavier Companion, and other publications. He divides his time between Bordeaux and Brookline.

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