Shanghai Quartet: Revealing an Unwritten Diaryposted on February 24th, 2009 by Alan Lockwood
The hubbub in Kasser Theater before the Shanghai Quartet’s recital this past Saturday was clearly a layering of individual voices. That’s a very good sign when chamber music is about to be played. It’s no given that an auditorium will accurately weigh and project the conversation of a powerful string quartet. Kasser does it, and how.
Chamber music, made for the company—and the skills—of friends, is best met with eager anticipation. In residency at Montclair State University, the Shanghai Quartet is in effect the local band. With Peak Performances being the lead commissioner of Krzysztof Penderecki’s String Quartet no. 3 (Leaves from an Unwritten Diary), the Kasser house was about to be the second audience to hear the piece, which Shanghai premiered in November at a Warsaw festival for the composer’s 75th birthday.
Mozart’s Quartet in D minor opened, burnished with Shanghai’s refined, darkened edge, generating a cumulative giddiness, with “giddy” as energizing, not frivolous. Back on stage, the quartet leapt into the Penderecki. Honggang Li’s viola carried an opening theme, gloved by Nicholas Tzavaras on cello, with violins accompanying—in effect, a reversal of string quartet protocols.
Within minutes, the vivace passage in G minor put things at a hurtling pace (thank heavens for the Mozart warm-up). Subsequent musical materials—of stasis, of melodies firmly stated then acutely dissipating—bore the underriding urgency of the recurring vivace, like a ravishing life warning from a master: pay close mind, while there’s time, because whatever your state of mind, there’s never enough time left.
By May, Shanghai will have played String Quartet no. 3 ten more times and are in discussions for recording it. Asked about Maestro Penderecki’s Sextet (on a March 7 program at Cooper Union in New York, by Ensemble Pi), Honggang Li and his brother, first violinist Weigang, smilingly used the same word: “hard.” They want to play it, having heard it at the Warsaw festival. There, Maestro Penderecki had them play the new quartet a second time, as an encore to their recital. Would that the enthusiastic Kasser house had had that added good fortune.
Alan Lockwood lives and writes in Brooklyn. His pieces on classical music have appeared in Time Out New York, Musical America, the New York Sun, and other publications.