No type of ensemble works harder these days than string quartets to make classical music “cool” and relevant. From hip, funky websites to innovative performances in unusual spaces, string quartets – two violins, a viola and a cello – are aiming to set the world of concert music on its ear (so to speak) in an effort to appeal to broader audiences.
The Ying Quartet, an ensemble of 25 years’ standing, achieved part of that mission on Saturday night. In the first of two appearances in the Washington area this season, the Rochester, NY-based ensemble played to a nearly full house at the Kreeger Museum on Foxhall Road up from Georgetown and Canal Road.
Whether the Ying’s muscular interpretation of traditional string quartets in a live environment wears well with all audiences is a larger question. The Ying dug hard into Beethoven’s String Quartet #10 and Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet #1. Most of the time their performance gave these two major pieces firm body, crisp rhythms, and a great deal of kinetic energy. Some of the time the music anticipated a bit too heavily upcoming rhythmic changes and did not allow lyric passages to complete their beauty all the way through. At the end of the Tchaikovsky quartet’s first and last movements the Ying positively buried the music in an avalanche of notes that almost sacrificed the composer’s famously pleasing tonalities on the altar of showmanship.
There’s no doubt about the Ying’s cohesion. Consisting of three siblings – cellist David Ying, violist Phillip Ying and second violinist Janet Ying – together with current first violinist Ayano Ninomiya, the quartet acts at all times as a unitary machine. The ensemble quite literally breathes its way into the trickier or more delicate rhythmic passages, even varying their interpretation during the course of a single note in exactly the same manner. None of the four players’ lines are ever lost or considered secondary even if the players are directed to play at different dynamics.
That avoids the challenge with many string quartet performances where the lead violin draws so much focus early on that the passing of melody lines to other players is missed or just becomes an academic matter to the listener.
In doing so the current Ying ensemble places a different challenge on the listener. Ms. Ninomiya joined the ensemble four years ago, replacing yet another Ying sibling as first violinist. Her tone is quite dark for a violinist, and her aggression (or enthusiasm) on many lines starts to sacrifice tone for rhythmic clarity as fast passages head up the instrument. Her high notes sounded flat throughout the concert, especially in moments when her melody line headed “around the bend” at the top before cascading downward.
In this there’s a particular contrast between Ms. Ninomiya’s violin and Phillip Yang’s viola. One of the best violists I’ve ever heard in chamber music, Mr. Yang’s tone is unusually ringing for a viola (an instrument that can sound “mangy” compared to the violin). Yet his playing is also highly declarative for the viola’s typically interesting harmony lines in quartets, which especially came to the fore in the Beethoven quartet as Phillip’s lines twirled around his sister Janet’s on the second violin. David Yang’s cello combines exceptional rhythmic sophistication – in many passages the ensemble seemed to take his lead to clearly and distinctly punch out notes – with effective counter-melody lines especially in Tchaikovsky’s music.
The quartet as a whole was at its best in the first movement of the Beethoven quartet and the second movement of the Tchaikovsky. The first movement of Beethoven’s Quartet #10 contains an innovative device – that Beethoven always had a new trick up his sleeve! – rooted in pairing two of the instruments bowing their strings while the other two plucked their strings in a pizzicato at the same time. The real trick is that after a few bars the pairs of instruments reverse positions so that the pair that was bowing starts plucking and the pair that was plucking starts bowing – and then the plucking pair itself splits into two different rhythms so that the pizzicato notes seem to gather force and speed.
Because the Ying Quartet “speaks” its music so forcefully and with rhythmic distinction, this device was wonderfully effective. The pizzicatos, which by their nature can generate much less volume than bowing the instrument, rang clearly and competed perfectly with the bowed notes in the Kreeger Museum’s Great Hall. For this device the entire Quartet #10 is often nicknamed Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, although the Ying Quartet disdained the nickname in its program notes and the designation is of limited use compared to other Beethoven monikers like the Eroica Symphony (Symphony #3), the Pastoral Symphony (Symphony #6), and the Moonlight Sonata (Piano Sonata #14). Personally I don’t think the effect sounds like a harp at all.
The second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Quartet #1 (he “only” composed three although they are all large, four-movement works) is semi-famous, with a languid melody that may be familiar as both background music and a couple of minor song hits along the course of the 20th century. The Ying Quartet’s darker colors in its upper instruments played beautifully here. Octave melodies among pairs of instruments, a viola solo late in the movement, swelling and retreating harmony notes, and some additional (though more conventional) pizzicato accompanying passages also played very well to the ensemble’s strengths in this movement.
An additional work on the program, while probably not to everyone’s taste regardless of the performers, also worked well in the hands of the Ying Quartet. Three Pieces by Igor Stravinsky – the short individual movements are labeled “Danse,” “Excentrique” and “Cantique” – deliver a mix of highly dissonant “ideas” that, as noted in a spoken introduction by Phillip Yang, were subsequently worked by the composer of The Rite of Spring into other compositions. Played right after the Beethoven, who might well have been a Stravinsky if he lived a century later, they were an effective complement to the rest of the program.
The Ying Quartet will be back in our area on Friday, January 9, 2015. Their program at The Barns of Wolf Trap will include two different large string quartet works, one by Robert Schumann and one by Johannes Brahms. How its sound plays on a cold winter night in The Barns’ cozy atmosphere will be a good measure of this ensemble’s particular approach to chamber music.
Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
The Ying Quartet played for one performance only on Saturday, November 8, 2014 at the Kreeger Museum – 2401 Foxhall Road NW, in Washington, DC. For future concerts at the Kreeger Museum, see their concerts schedule.
The Ying Quartet’s website.