A string quartet is a delicate organism. Not only must it have four excellent and committed musicians, but also a match and balance of four instruments, four musical concepts — and four egos. A quartet made up of four siblings, therefore, portends perfect harmony or perfect disaster. Fortunately, with the Ying Quartet, it seems that the extra ingredient of family unity — despite some admitted childhood and adolescent dissonance — gives them a unique sonority and blend, quite unlike even the most renowned ensembles. The Quartet — violinists Timothy and Janet, violist Phillip and cellist David — first visited Raleigh under the auspices of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild in 1995. The additional years of experience have enhanced the precision and blend, without the sacrifice of youthful exuberance.
The program, given in Kenan Recital Hall of Peace College, opened with Mozart's Quartet in D, K.575, a late work composed for King Frederick of Prussia. Since the King was an excellent amateur cellist, the cello has a prominent role in the work, and brother David gave a lively and animated performance, accentuated by animated body language. Phillip's viola has an expansive, warm tone that was matched by Janet's second violin. In all, it was a Romantic performance.
The highlight of the concert, however, was what the musicians called "A Musical Dim Sum," a selection of three compositions by contemporary Chinese-American composers. The Ying Quartet performed these with enthusiasm and daring — since some of the techniques required were definitely not kind to their instruments.
"Song of Ch'in," composed in 1982 by Zhou Long (b.1953), imitates the sonority and style of the ancient Chinese ch'in, a seven-string plucked instrument whose sound resembles the zither. The music is inspired by "Old Fisherman," an eighth-century poem by Liu Tsung-Yuan, describing the morning preparations of an old fisherman getting ready to set out in his boat. The music captured the atmosphere of the morning mist, lapping water and the sound of the oarlocks, created by bowing the violin strings on the wrong side of the bridge. The work demonstrated a fascinating extension of the sound capabilities of the string quartet. Zhou Long is currently Visiting Professor of Composition at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music.
Next on the program was "Pizzicato for Strings," the third movement of a string quartet by Vivian Fung (b.1975), a recent graduate of Juilliard. The movement, played entirely without the bow, requires a whole new glossary of pizzicato sub-techniques: the strings as well as the instrument body are struck, plucked, banged and slapped. The movement is delightfully witty, making us curious to hear the complete quartet.
Most familiar among the three composers was Chen Yi (b.1953). Born into a family of physicians with a strong interest in music, she began violin and piano studies at the age of three. When the Cultural Revolution overtook China in the 1960s she was sent for forced labor into the countryside for two years but subsequently served as concertmistress and composer with the Beijing Opera Troupe. In 1986, she came to the United States for further musical studies and is currently a Distinguished Professor in Composition at the University of Missouri at Kansas City Conservatory. Her "Shou" for string quartet — or string orchestra — is based on the first movement of her 1982 String Quartet. The Chinese word "Shou" means to initiate and refers to the first day of every month. Chen Yi explains that she took the initial material for the movement from Chinese folk tunes and the atmosphere she had experienced during her forced sojourn in China's back woods. The proverbially pentatonic mode and the lush bowing reminded us of some of the peasant modes of Bohemia, rendering Chen Yi — at least in this piece — a Chinese Dvorák.
The final work on the program was Tchaikovsky's Quartet No.1 in D, Op.11, an early and highly derivative piece. In spite of outstanding playing by the Ying Quartet, it was a letdown after the novelty and quality of the previous three works.
Finishing up on a wittier note, the musicians performed a version for string quartet of William Bolcom's rag "Poltergeist". Originally for piano, this is one of three Bolcom rags with ghost titles. The transcription works well, and the Ying gave it the proper spooky reading.