Review: Shanghai Quartet

with Soovin Kim, violin
& Orion Weiss, piano
Oct. 2, Modlin Arts Center, University of Richmond

Ernest Chausson’s Concert in D major, Op. 21, is one of the underplayed masterpieces of chamber music. It’s rarely heard outside of music festivals because its instrumentation, for solo violinist, pianist and string quartet, doesn’t conform to customary chamber configurations. Then there’s the hybrid character of this music: almost but not quite orchestral in scale, almost but not quite a concerto for violin, piano and strings, curiously melding old-style dance forms and Wagnerian harmonies and motifs.

It’s difficult to perform convincingly; but when performers pull it off, as violinist Soovin Kim, pianist Orion Weiss and the Shanghai Quartet did in the opening classical program of the new season at the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center, the Chausson rewards listeners as few chamber works can.

The piece was written for and introduced by the Belgian violin virtuoso Eugène Ysaÿe, and its violin writing is as lyrical and richly rhetorical as that of any of the great 19th-century violin concertos. Violinist Kim played the part accordingly, with firm yet soaring tone and unerring phrasing, sounding forward but not too far in front of his collaborators.

Pianist Weiss was at least a co-star, maybe more, in this performance, bringing crystalline clarity to a note-heavy piano part that can sound dense, naturally shaping the often complex arcs of Chausson’s writing – notably in the big opening movement – and projecting robustly but without overpowering strings.

The Shanghai – violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras – played their supporting role with warmth and refinement, eschewing the “perfume” sweetness often misapplied to French romantic music generally, and Chausson in particular, in favor of a heftier, more dusky collective tone that brought out this music’s Wagnerian kinship.

The foursome opened the program with Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 20, No. 4, the best-known among the set of six works from the late 1770s that form the foundation of the string quartet as we know it. The ensemble treated the first two movements with appropriate gravity and attention to instrumental crosscurrents, and with an unusually robust bass line thanks to cellist Tzavaras; and rode the Hungarian rhythms of the final two movements stylishly, although the third movement menuet alla zingarese would have benefitted from a brisker tempo.

Last year the Shanghai introduced a revised version of Tan Dun’s “Fen Ya Song (Ballad, Hymn, Ode),” which the Chinese composer originally wrote in 1983. This first string quartet is based on folk songs that Tan Dun collected during his exile among Chinese peasants during the Cultural Revolution, and blends sounds derived from the traditional instruments such as the ocarina and er hu with Western-style string writing and musical forms. Much of the piece recalls Béla Bartók’s refashioning of Hungarian folk music into a modern classical idiom.

In this performance, the Shanghai players seemed to emphasize the music’s novel effects, especially multi-voiced pizzicato, strategically bent notes and contrasts of austere, vibrato-free and more conventionally rounded string tone. They conveyed the piece’s dance rhythms with rustic energy, and its melodic interludes with a marked undertone of nostalgia.

This concert was my first exposure to the Modlin Center’s Camp Concert Hall after an acoustical refit. In its 1996 conversion from a multi-purpose auditorium into a music hall, the space was “tuned” to the sound of the Shanghai, so it was fitting that Camp 2.0 would be christened by the same group (although with a different cast of musicians producing a different collective sound).

A first impression – subject to change as I hear other performers and other music – is of an acoustic that is not as bright and is noticeably warmer. Bass tone sounds richer, although that may be due to Tzavaras’ cello sound as much as acoustical adjustments. Piano sound, at least as produced by Weiss, seems to have shed the glassy quality sometimes heard in the hall’s previous incarnation. In this performance, I heard the full range of volume without loss of detail or warping of perspective.

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