November 11, 2012

Brightly Does It: Peter Serkin and the Shanghai String Quartet

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Reputations of internationally renowned ensembles are bound to influence our expectations; the immediacy of a live performance allows us to truly bask in the music. Such was the dynamic at Bailey Hall last Friday, when pianist Peter Serkin joined the Shanghai Quartet for nearly two hours of enrichment. The centerpiece was the New York State premiere of Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng’s “Dance Capriccio.” Born in the quartet’s namesake, Sheng spent seven years studying the folk culture of the Tibetan borderlands during the Cultural Revolution before entering the Shanghai Conservatory and uprooting to the U.S., where he now teaches composition at the University of Michigan. The spirit of that research continues to inform his work, and the  deft shuttling of western Nepalese Sherpa idioms through a loom of classical counterparts in the “Dance Capriccio” is no exception. Yet, rather than oversimplify his craft as a fusion of East and West, as much press on Sheng is wont to do, we should take this newly commissioned piece on its own terms. The spectral qualities of its awakening were clear from note one; its eddies of ink and time were as brooding as they were animated. This brief glimpse into the lives of an ethnic group rarely known for anything beyond mountaineering was a treat for jaded ears. The layering of rhythmic signatures, combined with challenging octave splits from Serkin, made for rich tonal brocade and many translucent, if not also transcendent, passages.Making a sandwich of the evening were two no-less-colorful examples of standard repertoire. Of these, the “A-Major Piano Quintet” of Antonín Dvorák made the deepest impression and paired naturally with Sheng’s montage. At its heart is the Dumka, a Slavic form of which Dvorák was particularly fond. As the jewel of the performance, it showcased the musicians’ superb dynamic control — even the single pizzicato strokes from second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang rang true. The Dumka’s characteristic balance between sadness and gaiety was embodied by Serkin and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras. The composer’s affection for the cello, outside of his concerto for the same, is elsewhere hardly so apparent, and its mind-meld with the keys formed the golden thread that began the piece and flowed through a landscape, pastoral yet pensive, toward an effervescent Scherzo in the Bohemian style. All of this seemed mere preamble to the gnarled finale, in which Dvorák’s cellular approach and astonishing instinct for forested textures was clear as day.The concert opened with Mozart’s “String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat Major.” Nicknamed “The Hunt” for the first movement’s triadic evocation of hunting horns, it offered a conservative start to a concert otherwise roiling with emotion. These delicate considerations drowned in the swoon of the second movement, with its beautiful gilding from first violinist Weigang Li and permeable support from violist Honggang Li. The “Adagio” was the night’s first highlight and proved that these four bows are at their virtuosic best when given time to ponder. With so much elasticity to savor, we were won over by the enchanting syncopations of the final movement. Its winding circles of light, full of intent yet never cajoling, played a game of chase in lieu of capture. The quartet rendered Mozart just right: evocatively without ever being too theatrical.Serkin, a player I’ve long admired on disc, was splendid on stage. He plays like a violinist, wiggling his fingers for a cerebral vibrato effect, sculpting notes in their post-attack resonance. He also possesses some of the most elegant legato phrasing in the business. In combination with this world-class act, the effect was dazzling.

Original Author: Tyran Grillo