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The Shanghai Quartet has been in business for over 30 years, so it was well past time for the ensemble to perform a major concert in Raleigh. It did so on a balmy Sunday afternoon at Meredith College, in Jones Auditorium, a room wherein have been hosted numerous chamber music events, for decades. The program consisted of works by Turina, Ravel, and Brahms. The concert was sponsored by long-time Meredith benefactor Robert H. Lewis, whose most recent philanthropic venture at the school is dubbed The Robert H. Lewis Music Enhancement Fund.
The quartet's current members are violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li (brother of Weigang), and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, a native of New York City. For the concert's concluding work, they were joined by violist Xi Yang, a major force in music in the Triangle for whom this concert marked a reunion with several friends he had not seen for 34 years(!). (He fit right in.)
The program began with Joaquín Turina's "La oración del torero" ("The Bullfighter's Prayer") (1924), an exceptionally lovely little essay with strong Spanish flavor (of course) and French impressionistic overtones. Beyond this string quartet edition, the work exists in versions for lute quartet and for string orchestra. The visiting ensemble made a fine impression in this music, projecting sound at once rich and full and broadly spaced in the hall, so also very clearly and cleanly defined.
Ravel's Quartet in F (1903) is much more familiar fare, yet it paired well with the Turina, and the musicians made a very strong case for it, with projected sound that conveyed incisiveness, intensity, and remarkable depth of sound, coupled with artistic insight that can stem only from lengthy study and frequent performances together. That this was a fairly forthright rendition was a plus, for the relative absence of impressionistic mist enabled listeners to hear details of the piece sometimes obscured in more "French" readings.
And three cheers for the inclusion of not one but two 20th century works on this program (although truth to tell the Ravel made it just barely).
It was obvious from the outset that these are exceptional musicians who work together with levels of familiarity and comfort that only long-term, long-established ensembles can enjoy. They breathe together, they listen to and watch each other, their phrasing has been worked out in minute detail, and they are clearly of one mind with regard to all the interpretive niceties involved in the works they play.
There was lots more of this in the concert's concluding selection, the rarely-heard and refreshingly splendid – bucolic, indeed – String Quintet No. 1, in F, Op. 88 (1882), by Johannes Brahms. Why this piece appears on concert programs so infrequently is one of life's inexplicable mysteries. From start to finish it exudes happiness, contentment, even charm, which is not invariably part of Brahms' psychological profile. It's amazing how much richness the extra viola adds, even though the composer didn't give it nearly as much exposure as he provided for the other instruments. We know Xi Yang to be an exceptional player of both viola and violin. Stand-mate Honggang Li was radiant in his solos in this "viola quintet," as were the other artists in their many moments in the sun. There are a few brief moments of darkness in the score, but for the most part this is bright music, sometimes even sprightly, written at an Austrian spa during what must have been a very happy time for the composer. The work shows that, in spades, and this particular performance in turn reflected the quintet's many felicitous delights from start to finish, thanks to the Shanghai artists and Xi Yang.
There were no program notes and no remarks from the stage, so we've included a bit more information about the music played than we would normally do. There was plenty of room in the handsome four-page program for notes and for a paragraph or two about the quartet itself, beyond the individual musician bios that were included. Next time! And here's hoping there will indeed be a next time, and soon, too!
Note: The ensemble's visit to Raleigh included master classes the previous day. We wish we'd known, for such sessions can be immensely rewarding, and it would have been fun to hear these artists at work with young musicians.