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The Shanghai Quartet Sings to the Gods at Maverick

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Mon Sep 11th, 2017

The Shanghai Quartet: from left: Weigang Li, Yi-Wen Jiang, Orion Weiss, Nicholas Tzavaras, Honggang Li

Twenty-three years ago, I was driving into Millbrook; as I approached the Hitchcock gate (once a photography studio), I heard The Shanghai Quartet do a live in-studio radio performance on a local station. I was electrified by this in-studio excerpt and purchased their newly released recording: Music for a Sunday Morning. (They now have 34 recordings with a fascinating repertoire.) That was a pleasant title, but what I most enjoyed on that cd was their performance of Alberto Ginastera, a composer I was at that time unfamiliar with, but have come to love. I have heard The Shanghai Quartet several times live at Music Mountain, yet it was a treat to hear them in Woodstock at their 25th appearance at the recently renovated Maverick Shed. At this sold-out performance, I was given a special seat abutting the stage.

The Shanghai Quartet has moved on to greater eminence since 1994; the personnel remain the same, except for their cello replacement, Nicholas Tzarvaras who is truly wonderful. They opened with Beethoven’s 1810 String Quartet No. 11 in E minor, named “Serioso” by Beethoven himself. What Beethoven meant by the nickname no one is quite sure, but it may be the older sense of the word: to seriously look beyond the present to the tragedy of the human condition. As an experimental work that strives for concision and compression, it sounds quite modern. Both lyrical and elliptical, its harmonic aspect is strained amid arresting yet abrupt transitions that are startling and exciting. Enigmatic and restless, The Shanghai Quartet captured its electric yet uneasy qualities, which kept the audience at the edge of their seats, waiting for the next transcendent note. This quartet is about a mysterious spiritual transformation, a quality that The Shanghai Quartet understood with its collective unity, metamorphic sensibility, and instant immediacy.

They next played Kyzystof Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 3, “Leaves of an Unwritten Diary.” This was a late work (2008) commissioned for The Shanghai Quartet by the Modlin Center for the Arts at the University of Richmond, Virginia. The theme of this work was the Jewish Holocaust executed by Nazis. As a young, innocent boy Penderecki (b. 1933) witnessed a terrible massacre: this piece remains difficult to play—at its climax shrieking and sweeping repetitive notes invoke musical slaughter. While frightening, Penderecki has somehow made this as shockingly musical and as memorable as Shostakovich did in his 1944 Piano Trio in E minor, recently performed by The Sherman Ensemble.

This concert was held in memory of one of Maverick Concerts principal patrons, Miriam Villchur Berg, who for over a decade penned the wonderfully eloquent and incisive program notes that the Maverick series was noted for. In her honor, Music Director Alexander Platt asked Orion Weiss to perform three late Brahms Chorale Preludes from the year before Brahms died (1897). Numbers 8 and 10 were pleasant Christmas pieces about the joy of giving, while concluding number 3 was the melancholic elegy of a departed who misses much of the world. An attractive bouquet of flowers stood on stage to the left of the audience. Platt requested silence in Berg’s memory rather than applause.

Completed in autumn of 1887, and performed the following year, Antonin Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No. 2 in A major, Op. 81 (1887) illustrates Dvořák’s astonishing hop-scotch range in a Slavic manner with some melodies that subsequently passed into the popular American song tradition. Orion Weiss on the Yamaha piano was at times an integrated unit of the ensemble, although there were moments when the piano led the ensemble. The opening Allegro remains arresting, yet the subsequent melancholy Dumka has more fame. While the dumka is of Ukrainian origin, Dvořák invests its lament with high-spirited interludes. Even more exciting is the following gentle Scherzo, a furiant, a Czech dance with clashing double and triple rhythms. How these varied strands result in an astonishing unified quilt remains beyond explanation: somehow the concluding Allegro gathers up the varied colors into a satisfactory summation that dazzles.

Dvořák played the viola and one of his most striking, characteristic talents in chamber music was to endow the viola with a vital role, which permitted Honggang Li, the founding member, to shine in several melodies. The tone- perfect fierceness of Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang on violin has always been the branded trademark of this notable quartet. Tzavaras on cello supplies resonance that can get under your scalp. The audience demanded three bows. This was the final concert of Maverick’s season. A video of The Shanghai Quartet playing Dvořák's String Quartet in A-flat Major, Op. 105 appears below.