The Ying Quartet is a marvelous ensemble whose passion and commitment to the music they play is as admirable as it is vivacious.
Their performance Sunday afternoon in the last of the six Slee/Beethoven String Quartet Cycle concerts was one of the highlights of this young year.
It's easy to understand why if you'd either seen them perform previously or dropped in on the master class that cellist David Ying -- along with his violinist sister, Janet -- conducted with some students Wednesday. The underlying premise of his conversations with the students could be summed up in the quote, "Basically, you want music to sound active."
He talked about playing the notes, the difference between rote fidelity to the score and interpretation, the act that makes a score live. It wasn't as if the performer second-guesses the composer so much as it is about taking a tempo or other marking and, instead of jumping right to what it reads as, making a transition.
Take a pianissimo to a forte gradually instead of going abruptly from a whisper to a scream. It's nuances like that that differentiate a solid performance from a memorable one.
Violist Phillip Ying spoke prior to the concert beginning, noting that the Quartet in C minor (op. 18, no. 4), which began the program, is often the first Beethoven quartet that high school quartets play. One can see why. It is a vivacious, youthful drama with the ghost of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart hanging over the closing measures of the second movement and the opening bars of the third-movement minuet.
The Ying Quartet played it with all the buoyancy the piece deserved, wringing every last bit of excitement from the score, riding the crests and swells of the music or, as in the second movement, delicately bringing each instrument into the fold -- individuals banding together to make a whole.
This was in marked contrast to the valedictory quality infusing the Quartet in F major (op. 135), which followed on the program. Here was the music of a proven master. Lightness alternated with the dark, delicacy bumped into tightly wound ferocity, colliding with each other quickly, emphatically, before ending in a beautiful, emotional tapestry of sound. The Yings nailed it.
After the intermission, the quartet ended their recital with the Quartet in E minor (op. 59, no. 2), one of Beethoven's "Razumovsky Quartets."
In the master class, David Ying also noted that "magic happens when you know something is going to happen but it hasn't happened yet."
That is, in a way, a perfect intro to this quartet, one of the earliest examples in Beethoven's oeuvre where he uses empty bars and silence as elements of rhythm, heightening the drama and weight of the score by bracketing space. It's a beguiling and sparkling piece of music that was played just about as well as it can be by one of our finest young quartets.
Featured in the Slee Beethoven Quartet Cycle. Sunday afternoon in the University at Buffalo Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall on the North Campus, Amherst.