March 3, 2009

Rock and Rollin' Mozart

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The Shanghai Quartet visited Bailey Hall on Saturday for a riveting performance that had some of the rough-and-tumble feel of a rock concert. To open the performance, the quartet took on Mozart’s String Quartet in D minor, K. 421, setting an elegant yet chipper tone for the concert. They dallied with the first movement’s lightsome runs with a tempered gusto. In the Andante that followed, however, the quartet attacked a dark counterpoint, allowing it to well up with an unexpectedly inward melancholy. When the counterpoint motif came back, they erupted in a startling, hall-reverberating crescendo that brilliantly shattered the remaining façade of delicate composure the piece had initially created.
For the Menuetto they sailed into a rocking, dance-like lilt, making the movement buzz with a nervous energy. I was struck by the distinctness of violist Honggang Li, who resonated with a rich and luscious yet clear sound: he could both meld with the group and rise to the occasion when appropriate to be singled out.
The last movement of the Mozart ended with each member quickly sawing their bow in a short round-like structure, producing an imperfect echo. I mentioned to a listening companion that while I thought the violins were wonderfully articulate during this passage, cellist Nicholas Tzavaras seemed slightly muddied. “Ooh, but I like that,” she remarked, “it sounds dirty.” I realized, then, that perhaps Tzavaras’ gesture helped sully the brittle decorum which too often suffocates Mozart under frills and lace.
The dirty Mozart was just a warm-up for the astonishing centerpiece of the concert, Penderecki’s String Quartet No. 3, “Leaves for an Unwritten Diary.” Penderecki had the score specifically commissioned by the Shanghai Quartet in honor of his 75th birthday; it had its US premiere only one week ago. A Polish composer, he began his career under the influence of the avant-garde behind the Iron Curtain. Penderecki has remarked that he “writes against himself,” having abandoned the empty formalism of aleatoric and atonal traps. Subsequently, his music has swung back toward a style that might be deemed neo-Romanticism. His new composition reflected a mature synthesis of atonal and experimental techniques put to traditionally expressive purposes.
“Leaves” began with thin, piercing overtones made by slicing the viola accompanied by quick spizzicatto on the violins that quickly faded away. Then, all the strings played jagged pizzicato snaps and plunks. The piece later drifted into variations on a Polish folk melody from the composer’s childhood. Before it was finished, however, the strings scratched upward through the scales and underwent a violent tempo change. By the end, though, we had somehow miraculously been taken to a place of ethereal semi-tones and harmonics that dissolved into the cosmic space.
Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Op. 10 followed the intermission. The first movement featured a distinctly “oriental” sound at the end, which Debussy had lifted from Javanese gamelan music. Debussy is a particularly interesting composer for the cross-cultural Shanghai Quartet to choose since he appropriated many Eastern sources of music, while three-fourths of the cross-cultural group is Chinese. Thus, a dialogue is created between East and West that may go beyond mere Orientalism.
At the end of that movement, however, the violist broke his neck-rest. What could have been an agonizing disruption was turned into a moment of pure fun and bravado, which had better entertainment value of someone smashing a guitar because it was more unlooked for. The group joked with the audience in the interim while Li found his back-up instrument. A friend said it felt like a bad foul in basketball in which a player gets knocked down to the floor: everyone clapped when Li emerged with a new viola. Indeed, both the performers and the audience were still game to continue.
In the second movement, pizzicato from the violins sounded like teasing little cat’s paws, which was contrasted with slides. The third movement swelled with a quiet, melancholic exultation with wide vibrato while the final movement sped up with off-kilter dotted rhythms played by Weigang Li on first violin while Tzavaras punctuated dark grunts on the cello. The group’s rousing performance was capped by an encore of a Chinese folk song arranged by the second violin, Yi-Wen Jiang. Rarely can one leave a concert of any type of music where the performers can “break shit” like rock stars and still manage to “break one’s heart” at nearly the same time.