October 20: Ying Quartet with pianist Elinor Freer


Photo: waltercolleyimages.com

Photo: waltercolleyimages.com

Ying Quartet, pianist Elinor Freer give SFCM crowd a taste of Skaneateles

The stimulating three-work program, anchored by Shostakovich’s treasured Piano Quintet, included the premiere of a promising new work by American composer Kenji Bunch

By David Abrams

Saturday’s Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music program proved a homecoming of sorts for Rochester-based Ying Quartet and pianist Elinor Freer.

As co-artistic directors of the Skaneateles Festival, Freer and cellist-husband David Ying made the drive from Rochester to Skaneateles countless times since taking the reins of the summer music festival in 2005.  This time they kept heading east and drove into the welcome arms of an enthusiastic Syracuse audience well versed in the ensemble’s work.  When the three-work program came to a close with a persuasive performance of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor, one thing was clear: The road connecting Western and Central New York runs through Skaneateles.

The Ying Quartet has much of what the SFCM crowd has come to expect, including a dependable first violinist (Ayano Ninomiya) who hits all the right notes, plays in-tune and with a phrases handsomely.  The other players are second violinist Janet Ying, violist Phillip Ying and, of course, cellist David Ying.

They are also fun to watch — particularly David Ying, who swayed left and right and seized the moment several times throughout the performance.  And while the group’s sound may lack the penetrating resonance of SFCM’s prior guest, the Tokyo Quartet, it produces a warm and malleable blend of tone that maintains its quality both in the softest passages (the whisper-quiet opening of the Intermezzo from Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A minor) and the loudest (the Scherzo of the Shostakovich Quintet).

Written in 1940, Shostakovich’s Quintet is uncharacteristically tame, both in its demands on the pianist (Shostakovich wrote the part for himself) and with respect to the composer’s controlled temperament, which unlike his later chamber works reveals little of Shostakovich’s frustration with the oppressive regime that stifled his every turn towards creative self-expression and growth.  The work nevertheless allows ample room for intense expression and introspection, beginning with the opening piano solo entrance that sets the work’s contrapuntal wheels in motion before methodically building to a full-blown catharsis by movement’s end.

Freer’s cleanly articulated lines in the Bach-like stately introduction, and in the “walking bass” line at the beginning of the section that follows, set the tone for the good playing to come throughout the five-movement work.  I especially enjoyed David Ying’s emotionally charged high-register solo that follows the piano introduction, which soared powerfully above the collective sound of the four other players.

Although the wild scherzo movement was just a bit slow for my tastes, there’s little doubt that the ensemble came out smoking — hammering out the dense chordal string accompaniment to Freer’s widely-spaced (and equally relentless) pounding octave passages.  Ninomiya captured the ethnic flair of the Gypsy-like middle (Trio) section that followed with grace and élan, and her command of the altissimo register in the final movement was outstanding.

The ensemble’s handling of Shostakovich’s unusual Finale, a constrained and gentle movement that threatens to break into a march at a moment’s notice, was truly a delight — from the dreamy opening to the stormy sections that demanded (and received) fingers of steel from Freer.  The ethereal ending was especially lovely as the players massaged the tranquil final chords so adroitly, the audience (convinced that no Shostakovich ending could possibly be this polite) withheld its applause for what seemed like an embarrassing period of time.

The novel work on the program was the world premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Concussion Theory, whose title — Phillip Ying explained in his talk from the stage — refers to the “science” of using a series of explosions designed to disturb the equilibrium of the atmosphere in order to induce rainfall.

This is the composer’s second string quartet, and from the absence of program notes (other than a small disclaimer that the work was still in progress at the time of the booklet’s publication) I would imagine that the ink on the pages was still wet when the Ying Quartet sank its teeth into this work.

The four-movement work is programmatic, with a descriptive title accompanying each movement: No Man’s Land; Black Sunday; Concussion Theory; A Gentle Rain.  Insofar as it aims to examine (and at times mimic) these violent disturbances in the atmosphere, Concussion Theory makes use of a variety of disquieting contemporary sound techniques such as altissimo harmonics and glissandi, and gritty bowing techniques such as sul ponticello, sul tasto and col legno.

The overall effect is dramatic and often shocking, in spite of the fact that the listening experience remains wholly accessible.  Still, the piece ultimately succeeds largely because of its vivid musical imagery.  The impression of the dry and barren farmlands in No Man’s Land is captured by the instruments’ soft harmonics, gentle cello pizzicatos and glissandi (one can almost see the tumbleweed blowing across the stage).  The strains of church hymns in Black Sunday are juxtaposed with disturbing bowing techniques — strongly reminiscent of the striking opening of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to The Victims of Hiroshima — that portends disaster soon to come.

The atmospheric explosions in the brief but mighty third (Concussion Theory) movement are mirrored in the relentless 16th-note figures and sextuplet triplets.  The elegiac opening to the final (Gentle Rain) movement crescendos sharply to a loud and intense climax punctuated by slow, scalewise passages in the cello — suggesting perhaps that this “science” comes at a terrible cost — before giving way to a soft ending that I interpret as sorrowful resignation to forces beyond one’s control.

Concussion Theory was well received by the large crowd in attendance, and rightly so.  This is bold and effective writing that, like Penderecki’s Threnody, never strays far from the composer’s intent to connect with the audience.

The program opened with Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A minor Op. 13, which although satisfactory was the least convincing of the Ying Quartet’s efforts that evening.

Most of the problems fell early on, during the opening movement — where pitch on Ying’s cello during the slow introduction remained slightly but doggedly sharp on the vital half-step intervals, which affected the harmonic foundation of the four-voice texture.  At first I thought this was an aberration, given his excellent intonation elsewhere on the program.  But the identical pitch problem reoccurred when the introductory theme returned at the close of the final movement.

There were, to be sure, several memorable moments in this performance, particularly in the quartet’s warm phrasing and homogeneous blend of tone in the sweet Adagio non lento movement.  And then there was that precious moment in the Intermezzo when Ninomiya’s violin sang sweetly and ever so delicately over synchronized tutti string pizzicatos on the three other instruments — which gets my vote for the singular most breathtaking moment of the evening.

Details Box:
What: The Ying Quartet, with pianist Elinor Freer
Who: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: October 20, 2012
Next: Flanders Recorder Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17
Ticket prices: Regular $20, Senior $15, Student $10
Information: call (315) 682-7720