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A Great Augury for Rockport Summer


The Ying Quartet’s return to Shalin Liu, in company with the lively double bassist-composer Xavier Foley, welcomed a full house with an inviting radiance and upbeat good humor. The Sunday afternoon concert also augured well for the month-long Rockport Chamber Music Festival from Artistic Director Barry Shiffman commencing on June 7th. Individual concert tickets are now available HERE.

Having come to our attention in the early 1990s, the current quartet-in-residence at the Eastman School also teaches in the string department and leads a rigorous, sequentially designed chamber music program. One cornerstone of chamber music activity at Eastman is the noted “Music for All” program, in which all students can perform in community settings beyond the concert hall. The Quartet is the ensemble-in-residence at the Bowdoin International Music Festival, and from 2001-2008, the members of the Ying Quartet were the Blodgett Artists in-Residence at Harvard University. It’s also interesting that the ensemble spent some of its formative years in Jessup, Iowa, a farm town of 2,000 people. Playing before audiences of six to six hundred in homes, schools, churches, and banks, they could not help but think of Dvořák’s sojourn in nearby Spillville, Iowa in 1893. And that manifest affinity disclosed itself in the fulsome and idiomatic sounds the foursome mustered with Foley in the closer, Dvořák’s String Quintet No. 2 in G Major, Op. 77.

The Ying’s connection with the father of the string quartet idiom, might (stretching the conceit) summon up the parenting of their particular ensemble: Papa und Mutter Ying deserve our thanks for producing four musical Kinder. Three of whom, violinist Janet, violist Philip, and cellist David, have thrived together for decades in the eponymous ensemble. Violinist Robin Scott joined in 2015.

Haydn’s String Quartet in B-flat Major Op. 50, No. 1 (1787) earned its Prussian designation from the conspicuous cello part which paid tribute to the cellist-monarch Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Karl Ernst Alexander Heinrich Prinz von Preußen, much as der große Frederick had inspired composers to write for the flute. In a space of slightly lower seating capacity than the Esterházy Palace, where the premier had taken place, cellist David opened with fine resonance and continued almost throughout with an insistent and irresistible heartbeat. The other three players entered in the third bar, Scott, in first chair, (along with violist Philip) gave compelling dolce voice to the opening theme, over the continued heartbeat. A second theme of water over polished rocks befit the aquatic scene without. *

The Adagio non lento, an almost weepingly courtly Viennese waltz, went light on the pomp as the royalty symbolically entered the ballroom. After brief contrasting rage, a minor recap came to us with familiarity and exquisite warmth. The Menuetto: Poco allegretto was a movement with great equality of its parts…no birth order domination from the first prevailed among the siblings without rivalry. Joy unfurled its banners in the upbeat take on one of Papa Haydn’s beloved movements, the Finale: Vivace. Imagine Ying quartuplets at a birthday party.

Bassist Foley then appeared with a surprise addition to the program. “I am the missing piece,” he told us, before proceeding with his solo evocation of Brown Chapel, an homage to the “soul of Gospel” he heard in the namesake church in Ypsilanti, Michigan in his childhood. We love the soprano range of the double bass when it is done right, and for sure, Foley impersonated a soulful singer with perfect intonation as well as wonderfully stretched blues notes. After episodes of jazzy scatting, Ivesian overlaps of remembered tunes, and a pastorale summoning up early American church basses, Brown Chapel closed with snappy Amens.

Foley wrote Mayflower for String Quintet to a recent Ying commission. A Moldau-like “Departure” featured the bass seemingly swimming against an overwhelming current. A Dvořákian (think New World) moto perpetuo looked to the distant shore. Silent Sea began with a folkish solo violin taken up by the double bass with large dollops of reassuring soul. Then a jive ensued before comin’-home sadness got the last word. The closing movement Settlement depicted the arrival in the New World with something of a peasant dance uniting Native Americans with rather Czech-sounding Pilgrims.

In the main event, Dvořák’s Quintet No. 2, the players adopted a splendid saftigity. If the tone in the room still sounded gritty, then these were hominy grits. This malted milkshake of richness well-integrated the bubbles of the upper strings with the molten maltiness of the db. We heard pre-echoes of the American Quartet and the New World Symphony. The Scherzo proceeded in a mutual embrace of generous impulses which reminded me of the composer’s Bagatelles (with harmonium). After the consolation of the Poco andante, the Finale sped to its tricky rondo finish as something of a witch’s brew replete with newts and dragon’s teeth. Or was it a romantic philosopher stoned? Because of Foley’s signal contribution (all string quartets should add a double bass part), the quintet could sound fully saturated but retain bounciness.

Stay tuned for more great chamber music this summer in the Shalin Liu Center.

Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer

* Here, though, we need to comment on challenging lighting issues. The late afternoon sun on Sandy Bay creates a glare through the famous window wall measuring over 2,000 Lux. The general practice at the hall is to mitigate that with high-power stage lighting. On this afternoon, though, the Ying’s first violinist apparently found the stage lighting intolerable, thus it was reduced to 30% of maximum, or about 250 lux. As a consequence of the disproportion, the audience experienced shadow play with the ensemble members entirely silhouetted. The Hall has lovely sliding wooden shutters to deal with this problem, but they are rarely deployed―apparently because of a strong audience preference to watch gulls cavorting in the sky―though they then complain about glare. The fix I have recommended is an applied liquid crystal film such as is used in 787 planes which can electronically darken to whatever degree is needed while becoming transparent when no power is applied. Thus, musicians can be comfortable, and patrons can enjoy looking at the stage without resorting to sunglasses.

The upper cell phone shot below shows pretty accurately what we observed. The Photoshopped lower image corrects the balance between front and back lighting.

1 Comment »

1 Comment [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. Dare I say superb review of this concert? Hit all the references, the expressiveness, the ambiance (with an Eiseman-like valid suggestion).

    Comment by Bettina Norton — April 21, 2024 at 4:33 pm

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