Shanghai Quartet

Weigang Li, violin
Yi-Wen Jiang, violin
Honggang Li, viola
Nicholas Tzavaras, cello

Benjamin Hochman, piano

Sunday, June 29, 2014, 4 pm

American Landscapes I: Bright Sheng and Dvořák


String Quartet in D Minor, Op.76, No. 2, "Fifths" (1796) Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Andante o più tosto allegretto
Menuetto: Allegro ma non troppo
Vivace assai

Dance Capriccio (2011) Bright Sheng (b. 1955)


In the Mists, for piano solo (1912)
Leoš Janáček (1854-1928)

Molto adagio

Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81 (1887)
Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904)

Allegro ma non tanto
Dumka: Andante con moto
Scherzo (Furiant): Molto vivace
Finale: Allegro

next week

Saturday, July 5, 6:30 pm
Benjamin Verdery, guitar

American Landscapes II: Music of the Americas

Music of Bach, Villa-Lobos, and other North and South American masters

Sunday, July 6, 4 pm
Calder Quartet

American Landscapes III: California Style

Music of Beethoven,Janáček, and Thomas Adès
(b. 1971)



Program Notes © 2014 by Miriam Villchur Berg*


The Shanghai Quartet was formed in 1983 at the Shanghai Conservatory in China. After winning second prize in 1985 at the Portsmouth International Quartet Competition in England, the group left China to study at Northern Illinois University with the Vermeer Quartet. In 1989 they became the quartet-in-residence at the University of Richmond and artists-in-residency at Montclair State University in New Jersey. The four members are also visiting guest professors at the Shanghai Conservatory and Central Conservatory of Music in China.

Weigang Li, violin, is a native of Shanghai, and has been the first violinist for the Shanghai Quartet since its founding. Weigang appeared in the film From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China. He is on the faculty at the Bard College Conservatory of Music.

Yi-Wen Jiang, violin, was born in Beijing, and became the second violinist for the Shanghai Quartet in 1994. He has been a soloist with the Victoria Symphony and Montreal Symphony. Yi-Wen has appeared on NBC and PBS television specials and many radio stations, and has won prizes at the Mae M. Whitaker and Montreal competitions.

Honggang Li, viola, attended the Beijing Conservatory and the Shanghai Conservatory. He was the original second violinist with the Shanghai Quartet. After violist Zheng Wang left the group, they had trouble finding a replacement. When Yi-Wen Jiang was accepted as the second violinist, Honggang learned to play the viola in order to complete the quartet.

Nicholas Tzavaras, cello, is the only American member of the Shanghai Quartet, having grown up in Harlem. Nicholas joined the Shanghai Quartet in 2000 and is currently the string department coordinator and cello professor at Montclair State University. He appeared in the academy-award-nominated documentary Small Wonders and in the motion picture Music of the Heart with
Meryl Streep.

Pianist Benjamin Hochman was born in Jerusalem, and studied at both the Curtis Institute of Music and Mannes College of Music. He was the winner of the Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2011. Mr. Hochman has performed with many major US symphonies, including the Los Angeles and New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony, under such conductors as Leon Botstein, Jaime Laredo, and Pinchas Zuckerman. Festival appearances include Ravinia, Caramoor, Spoleto, and many others, both nationally and internationally. He has performed at Carnegie Hall, Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, the Louvre, Suntory Hall in Tokyo, and many other major venues. Benjamin has worked with many prominent chamber groups including the Tokyo and Daedalus Quartets, members of the Guarneri, Juilliard, and Orion Quartets, violinist Ani Kavafian, and cellist Sharon Robinson. He is currently on the piano faculty of Bard College and the Longy School of Music.

Described by The New York Times as a “gifted, fast-rising artist,” Mr. Hochman is an impassioned and intelligent exponent of diverse composers, from Bach and Mozart through Kurtág and Peter Lieberson. His recorded repertoire includes a debut album of music by Bach, Berg, and Webern, and a second solo album, Homage to Schubert.





Joseph Haydn spent much of his career as the court composer of Count Esterházy. When the Count died and his heir was less musically inclined, Haydn became a “free agent,” traveling and giving concerts for a much broader audience.

In this later work, the String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 76,
No. 2
, Haydn had the tastes of the general public in mind. The opening Allegro is based on a memorable motif—sequential descending fifths which recur throughout the movement. These repeated intervals have given the piece its nickname of Quinten, or “Fifths.”

The minor key of this work is unusual for Haydn—only ten of his sixty-eight string quartets are in minor keys. He turns to D major for the second movement, which is somewhat livelier than usual with its triple meter and its tempo marking of Andante o più tosto allegretto (Andante or a quicker allegretto). The pleasant melody is accompanied by pizzicato (plucked) and bowed strings, and later played with extensive ornamentation in an informal variation on the theme.

For the Menuetto, Haydn once again goes against expectations, composing a two-part canon and returning to the minor key. The central trio continues the heavily accented beats, with the violin playing an ethereal melody. The eerie quality of this movement has given it the nickname the “Witches’ Minuet.”

The finale follows the usual pattern with a Vivace assai (very lively) marking. But the line is occasionally interrupted with a single high note in the violin and a fermata (an extended pause) before continuing its forward motion. Although he begins this last movement in minor, the good-natured Haydn cannot help but end on a positive note, changing to the major for the big finish.

Bright Sheng worked in a folk music and dance troupe in China near the Tibetan border as a teenager, and collected folk music of the area while he was there. After studying at the Shanghai Conservatory, he came to the US and studied with Leonard Bernstein and George Perle at Columbia. He considers it his musical challenge to integrate Asian classical and folk musical styles (which he calls his “mother tongue”) with Western classical music (which he calls his “father tongue”).

The composer writes: “Dance Capriccio is inspired by the dance folk music of the Sherpa, a small ethnic group mostly living in western Nepal, in the high mountains of the Himalayas. Sherpa are regarded as excellent mountaineers and guides for expeditions of the Himalayas, especially the Everest.

“Sherpa language is essentially an atypical dialect of Tibetan. The same phenomenon is reflected in Sherpa folk music, which is similar to Tibetan but with its distinctive characters and twists of melodic turns. Like the Tibetans, Sherpa people love to dance, and dance music (along with love songs and drinking songs) is an important genre among Sherpa folk music.

“In Dance Capriccio, I try to capture the various characters of Sherpa dance, from slow to fast, tender to raucous—even wild.”

Leoš Janáček studied at the music conservatories of Vienna and Budapest, but he was a Czech nationalist, seeking to escape the bonds both of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire and of Germanic musical rules and requirements.

In the Mists is, as its name implies, an impressionistic, dreamlike composition. Within the confines of tonality, he uses dissonance liberally, but with either resolution to a consonant cadence or a segue into a new phrase with more familiar harmonies. He avoids tonal certainty, keeping us guessing with free progressions of chords or abrupt modulations.

The Andante establishes the feeling of reverie with a gentle minor motive. Midway, that theme changes to a dynamic version of itself with cascading major runs. The more pensive mood returns to complete the movement.

In the Molto adagio, Janáček takes simple melodic and rhythmic motifs and uses them to create many moods—questioning, assertive, lazy, hurried, tentative, certain. Although he gave no indication of a literary inspiration for this music, we can hear Janáček’s gift for capturing the cadence of speech. Like the Andante, the short Andantino has an ABA structure, moving from calm to stormy and back again.

In the final movement (Presto), Janáček allows himself freer rein in melody, harmony, and rhythm. The opening sequence recurs in a loose rondo form. Intervening segments are thematically related as well, especially the last, which uses a slowed-down version of the rondo theme.

Despite his peasant origins, Antonin Dvořák managed to acquire a solid musical education. He was fortunate in having the support of major musical figures of his day, including Smetana and Brahms, and he achieved worldwide success in his lifetime.

In a piano quintet, the composer can give the piano a single melody, treating it as just another voice in the ensemble, or he can set the piano apart as a separate entity against (or with) the string quartet as a whole. Dvořák uses both techniques in his Piano Quintet in A Major, Op. 81, creating an exquisite balance wherein all parts are heard both as soloists and as an ensemble.

Dvořák Slavonic heritage is evident from the outset of the Allegro, as the first theme is announced by the cello. The sweetness of the key of A major is tempered by its immediate switch to A minor, and by the continuation of the minor into the melancholy second theme, presented by the viola.

The piano opens the second movement (Andante con moto) with a ballad refrain, the viola adding a mournful melody beneath it. An abrupt change brings in a dialogue between the violins and a light, tripping theme. This Dumka—an elegiac Slavic folk lament—has a central section that is lively and exciting before it returns to the darker mood. The final cadence descends to the depths of
the cello’s range.

The Scherzo is marked Furiant, a fast Moravian folk dance. In the trio section, Dvořák uses some of the same material in a slower tempo, giving it a wistful quality. The furiant returns (though in a different key) to complete the symmetry of the movement.

A dialogue between violin and piano opens the Finale: Allegro, at first in short, chattering notes, then again in a warm melodious theme. The chattering tune becomes the basis of a fugato, with each part playing it in overlapping turns. The piece ends with a majestic series of rising notes that outline the major key.

All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg. It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy,  publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at Program Notes © 2014 by Miriam Villchur Berg