Shanghai Quartet's music translates well by Andrew Druckenbrod
From Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Is music really a universal language? While there are a few common
aspects a stranger can pick out and enjoy in a music of an unfamiliar
culture, truly understanding that language is hardly much more facile
than deciphering a foreign tongue. Even with a "translator" -- such
as the excellent Shanghai Quartet in Pittsburgh Chamber Music
Society's concert at the New Hazlett Theater Monday night -- it is
Even cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, the only non-Chinese member of the
quartet, admitted it took him a while to get comfortable with the
Chinese repertoire the group played. In the post-concert talk, led by
music lecturer Greg Sandow, Tzavaras also adamantly stated that the
Shanghai Quartet is not a Chinese ensemble, that anyone could play
this music. That is true in the abstract -- the violin knows no race
or cultural bias. But the blatant fact is, few quartets are playing
music by Chinese composers. If the Chinese members of Shanghai --
violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang and violist Honggang Li -- can
do so more easily because they are steeped in the cultural language,
it's something to praise.
Some day -- sooner than you might think, considering the music
boom in China -- you may hear countless American and European
quartets programming this music. And who is to say that future isn't
being inspired by a quartet showcasing its heritage?
The concert opened with Zhou Long's seminal "Song of Ch'in,"
composed in 1982. To say it approximates Chinese instruments such as
the erhu does not do it full justice, but its basic fabric is one of
stylistic imitation with broad glissandos, treble timbres and taut
pizzicato. The Shanghai was uncompromising here, unwinding its coiled
lyricism but never overdoing the inflections.
That was not the case in Jiang's "Selections from ChinaSong,"
which found the group dwelling on the cliches of the admittedly
unfamiliar folk and popular songs. But here my lack of familiarity
arose: The musicians later explained that the pieces touch a
heartstring for the older Chinese who lived through Mao's regime,
justifying the sentimental approach.
Bright Sheng's String Quartet No. 4, "Silent Temple,"(2000) is a
modern bridge between East and West. The Shanghai offered such
mastery, delivering staccato runs or chordal bursts with uncanny
precision, that at times one fixated on the sheer musicianship. But
the fascinating work had much to offer, especially if one follows the
reading of Honggang Li, who views it as depicting an attack of a
temple by Red Guards, ending with the performers all symbolically
After all this exploration, it was interesting to hear how much
warmer the Shanghai played even the pizzicatos of Ravel's String
Quartet. At times, the Shanghai's precision sapped its lushness, but
phrasing was tasteful and solos supreme (violist Li is a marvel of a
player). If only we all could "speak" the language as well as this
Back to Reviews