Brightly Does It: Serkin and Shanghai Dazzle

The Shanghai Quartet
Weigang Li violin
Yi-Wen Jiang violin
Honggang Li viola
Nicholas Tzavaras cello
Peter Serkin piano
Bailey Hall, Cornell University
Friday, November 9, 2012
8:00 pm

Reputations of internationally renowned ensembles are bound to influence our expectations; the immediacy of a live performance allows us to put aside the accolades and 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 Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng’s Dance Capriccio, making its New York state premier. Born in the quartet’s namesake, Sheng spent seven years studying folk culture of the Tibetan borderlands during the Cultural Revolution before entering the Shanghai Conservatory and uprooting to the US, where he now teaches composition at the University of Michigan. The spirit of that research continues to inform his work, and the Dance Capriccio’s deft shuttling of western Nepalese Sherpa idioms through a loom of classical counterparts 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 did better to take this newly commissioned piece on its own terms, as dictated by the very ones for whom it was written. The spectral qualities of its awakening were clear from note one, its eddies of ink and time 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. Like a stormy sky enjoying its thunder, memorable flashes of brilliance marked its canvas.

Making a sandwich of the evening were two no-less-colorful examples of standard repertoire. Of these, the A-Major Piano Quintet of Antonín Dvořák made the deepest impression and paired naturally with Sheng’s montage. At its heart is the Dumka, a Slavic form of which Dvořák 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 to the gills 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 Dvořák’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” and so called 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 (not least for his duo recording with András Schiff on ECM), 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.

(See this article in its original form at the Cornell Daily Sun.)

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