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Expressive Shanghai Quartet mixes Eastern and Western musical voices by James McQuillen
From The Oregonian
East is East and West is West, as Kipling wrote, and in the Shanghai
Quartet the twain have met.
The ensemble was formed in 1983 at the Shanghai conservatory, its
members among the first generation to be allowed to study Western
classical music after the Cultural Revolution. It's long been based
the United States, for 13 years in residence at the University of
Richmond and now at New Jersey's Montclair State University.
The current membership includes three Chinese players -- brothers
Weigang and Honggang Li, on violin and viola, respectively, and
violinist Yi-Wen Jiang -- and one American, cellist Nicholas
The most important aspect of the quartet's internationalism is, of
course, its music. Two seasons ago, the four were the first to
the complete Beethoven quartet cycle in China, and they regularly
perform Chinese music in their concerts on this side of the Pacific,
as they did Monday night in their enormously satisfying program at
Lincoln Performance Hall.
The opener was a set of selections from Jiang's own "China Song,"
string quartet arrangements of Chinese folk and contemporary popular
songs. The excerpts featured beguiling melodies and echoes of Chinese
instruments, but Jiang's ingenious arrangements, with their rich
harmonies reminiscent of 19th-century central European chamber music,
made them sound wholly suited to the quartet idiom. They were no more
exotic than the Leos Janacek quartet, also steeped in folk tradition,
that immediately followed.
They gave Janacek's "Kreutzer" quartet an exceptionally vivid,
reading with beautiful sound and delicately applied tonal color. It
may be that the quartet's Chinese origins free it somewhat from the
influence of national schools and other influences. But their
while no less deft and careful than that of their colleagues among
first rank of quartets, has a natural-sounding expressiveness that
many others, in their striving for steely perfection or sonic effect,
They also have stronger inner voices than most; Li's powerful,
viola and Jiang's second violin are the strongest I've heard in a
quartet setting. Remarkably, they still achieve excellent balance.
They closed with Beethoven's Op. 131 in C-sharp Minor, a work of
symphonic scale that unfolded with freshness and spontaneity, the
standard of chamber playing. The Presto reached a state of
edge-of-the-seat excitement, and the subsequent transition to the
Adagio was pure dramatic finesse.
There were a distressing number of empty seats at the hall Monday
night. If the Shanghai Quartet returns, let's not let it happen
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