ABOUT THE ARTISTS
Renowned for its passionate musicality, impressive technique, and multicultural innovations, the Shanghai Quartet (Weigang Li, violin; Yi-Wen Jiang, violin; Honggang Li, viola; and Nicholas Tzavaras, cello) is one of the world’s foremost chamber ensembles. Its elegant style melds the delicacy of Eastern music with the emotional breadth of Western repertoire.
Formed at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983, the Quartet has worked with the world’s most distinguished artists and regularly tours the major music centers of Europe, North America, and Asia.
Recent festival performances range from the International Music Festivals of Seoul and Beijing to the Festival Pablo Casals in France, as well as festivals in Poland, Armenia, and Colombia. Among innumerable collaborations with noted artists, they have performed with the Tokyo, Juilliard, and Guarneri Quartets; cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell; pianists Menahem Pressler, Yuja Wang, Peter Serkin, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet; Wu Man, a virtuosa of the four-string Chinese pipa; and the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer. The Quartet regularly performs at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, Chamberfest Ottawa, and Maverick Concerts, where they have performed regularly for more than two decades.
The Quartet has a long history of championing new music and juxtaposing traditions of Eastern and Western modes. The Quartet’s thirtieth anniversary season brought commissions by David Del Tredici, Carl Vine, Jeajoon Ryu, Lei Liang, and Robert Aldridge. Their twenty-fifth anniversary season featured commissions by Penderecki, Chen Yi, Vivian Fung, and jazz pianist Dick Hyman. Other important commissions and premieres include works by Bright Sheng, Lowell Lieberman, Sebastian Currier, Marc Neikrug, and Zhou Long.
The Shanghai Quartet has an extensive discography of more than thirty recordings, including performances of the complete Beethoven string quartets, a seven-disc project. Delos released the Quartet’s most popular disc, Chinasong, a collection of Chinese folk songs arranged by Yi-Wen Jiang and reflecting on his childhood memories of the Cultural Revolution in China.
A diverse and interesting array of media projects include a cameo appearance playing Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in Woody Allen’s film Melinda and Melinda and PBS television’s Great Performances series. Violinist Weigang Li appeared in the documentary From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China, and the family of cellist Nicholas Tzavaras was the subject of the film Music of the Heart, starring Meryl Streep.
The Shanghai Quartet currently serves as quartet-in-residence at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University in New Jersey, ensemble-in-residence with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and visiting guest professors of the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory in Beijing. They are proudly sponsored by Thomastik-Infeld Strings.
ABOUT THE MUSIC
Frank Bridge was a successful violist (with the English String Quartet), conductor (of the London Symphony Orchestra), teacher (Benjamin Britten was his pupil), and composer. His early works are in the late Romantic style, but he later incorporated the avant-garde harmonies of the Second Viennese School. One of his harmonic innovations—the Bridge chord—consists of two unrelated chords, such as C minor and D major, played one on top of the other.
The Novelletten for String Quartet starts slowly (Andante moderato), with the violin playing simple octaves in a rocking motion. The other instruments present the lyrical theme until the violin takes the lead. Viola and cello play important parts, giving the whole a rich, mellow feeling, even when the music is dramatic. Although the title Novelletten suggests many little stories, the whole is highly cohesive.
Bridge’s use of pizzicato (plucked) sections in the short central movement (Presto – Allegretto) recalls Ravel’s String Quartet, which had premiered the year before. Here the plucked strings alternate with fast intense sections and passages of legato melodies.
The final movement (Allegro vivo) begins with a fanfare, and the full sonority continues until the instruments each take up a melodious theme in turn. These contrasting textures alternate and are combined, until the vigorous opening returns for a climactic ending.
Felix Mendelssohn was a precocious musical talent, composing and performing his own works at the age of nine. Although he was a child prodigy, his parents spared him the grueling lifestyle of touring and display that the young Mozart had endured. In addition to being a brilliant pianist and violinist, Mendelssohn was also fluent in several languages and a fine graphic artist. He had friends among the elite of political, social, and artistic society. He made a lasting friendship with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe when he was twelve and the author was seventy-two. His composing career was steady, prolific, successful, and fulfilling. He was admired throughout Europe, and practically worshipped in England.
During one of his trips to England, Queen Victoria sang some of his lieder, with Mendelssohn accompanying her. When Berlioz visited Berlin in 1843, he praised Mendelssohn’s music and enlisted him to play the harp part (on the piano) in a performance of his Symphonie Fantastique. In that same year, Mendelssohn conducted a performance of his own oratorio St. Paul in Dresden, and was acclaimed by the Kapellmeister there, Richard Wagner (who later, however, renounced Mendelssohn for having introduced Jewish qualities into German music).
Mendelssohn was devoted to his sister Fanny, who was a fine composer and musician as well. While Felix was on tour in England, he received word that Fanny had died suddenly of a stroke. Mendelssohn fell unconscious, a blood vessel having burst in his head. He never recovered from the loss, and died six months later, also of a stroke, at the age of thirty-eight. His String Quartet No. 6 in F Minor, Op. 80, was written just after Fanny’s death, and is an unmistakable expression of his grief.
Mendelssohn is known for light, airy, fast-bowed musical treatments. In the quartet’s opening Allegro assai, he demonstrates how that style can be transformed, from delicate music evoking fairies into an expression of anguish. A single voice—now the high violin, now the cello—wails and keens as the other instruments continue their relentless agitation. The second theme, legato and wistful, appears only briefly before the darker theme returns.
The Scherzo (Allegro assai) is a furious syncopated dance, again in F minor. The German saying concerning this key is “Mehr moll gibt’s nicht”— nothing is more minor than F minor. Mendelssohn uses the key, even in the central Trio section, to convey his unremitting despair.
In the Adagio, a glimmer of respite is heard in the change to the relative major (A flat), but the melody starts with a minor run in the cello and maintains the aura of sorrow throughout. Nostalgic memories of his beloved sister are portrayed by dialogues between the violin and others, punctuated by fierce moments of anguished confusion, conveyed in dotted rhythms.
The dotted rhythms and strong accents continue in the Finale (Allegro molto), again in F minor. A pensive secondary theme makes a momentary appearance. As the movement ends, the first violin soars to its highest range to express the solitude of grief.
Edvard Grieg grew up in middle-class Norwegian urban society, where the language was Danish, as was the cultural outlook. He got a classical musical education, and would have been confined to the German Romantic tradition but for two important influences—the violinist Ole Bull, and the composer Rikard Nordraak, whose goal was to found a national school of Norwegian music. After Nordraak’s untimely death, Grieg dedicated himself to that same patriotic goal. He learned about his native culture, eventually becoming the greatest Norwegian composer and the symbol of Norwegian nationalist music.
The String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 27, is Grieg’s only complete string quartet (an early one is lost, and the third is incomplete). It combines his Classical training, his love of Norwegian folk music, and late-nineteenth-century concepts of harmony. The work had an influence on Debussy’s string quartet, written ten years later.
The motto theme, presented at the opening of the first movement (Un poco andante—Allegro molto ed agitato), comes from one of Grieg’s songs, a setting of Ibsen’s story about a musician longing for his love and hoping a water sprite will bring her to him. The second theme enters—a melody sweet with yearning periodically interrupted by the forceful opening theme. Grieg later said there was an element of autobiography in this quartet—he wrote it in the work hut he had built for himself far from his beloved wife Nina.
The Romanze opens with a lilting waltz tune and conventional harmonies (Andantino), but the intense and more modern style reappears with the return of the theme of the first movement as occasional punctuation to the romantic story.
The Intermezzo uses an altered version of the Romanze theme, this time with each chord played marcato—strongly accented. Once again, the strains of the motto theme are heard (Allegro agitato), as are the more lyrical passages. A simple folk tune with plucked accompaniment serves as the Trio, after which the opening material is repeated.
The Finale opens with the motto theme played slowly and in imitative counterpoint. The end of the piece is a saltarello, a fast peasant dance with a skipping step at the beginning of each measure.
All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg.
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Program Notes © 2016 by Miriam Villchur Berg