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Margo Kline: Shanghai Quartet Exudes Excellence

The ensemble performs beautifully before a full house at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

If the world grows smaller every day, the downside is offset by an upside, displayed last week by the Shanghai Quartet at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

Four young men — three from China and one from Spanish Harlem — form the dazzling ensemble, which played before a full house in the museum’s Mary Craig Auditorium. They received a well-deserved welcome, hearty applause at the end of each piece and more when the concert was over.

The Shanghai Quartet: Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violin; Honggang Li, viola; and Nicholas Tzavaras, cello.
The Shanghai Quartet: Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violin; Honggang Li, viola; and Nicholas Tzavaras, cello. (Shanghai Quartet photo)

From the first notes, it was apparent that they are exceptional musicians: violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang, violist Honggang Li and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras (from Spanish Harlem).

The brothers Lis studied and taught at the Juilliard School, among many other credits. Jiang has taken master classes with Pinchas Zukerman, and Tzavaras has degrees from the New England Conservatory and State University of New York. These laurels barely skim the surface of the various honors earned by the four players; the proof, of course, was in the playing.

The first offering was Chinese folk music, in a set arranged by Jiang: Morning in the Miao Mountain and Reflections of the Moon in the Er-Quan Spring. The pieces were lovely and heart-rending. Of course, the Chinese repertory abounds in graceful music from a 5,000-year culture. The pieces conveyed that richness in arrangements appealing to Western ears as well.

Those works were followed by the String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Opus 95, “Serioso,” of Ludwig van Beethoven. The composer has been quoted as saying, “The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.” Little did he know. The instrumentalists played it movingly, and the audience responded in kind.

Closing out the concert’s first portion was the String Quartet No. 3, “Leaves From an Unwritten Diary,” by Kristoff Penderecki. He wrote it in honor of the Shanghai Quartet’s 25th anniversary and his own 75th birthday. It premiered earlier this year at Montclair State University in New Jersey, where the Shanghai ensemble is quartet-in-residence. It’s a stunning work, sure to be heard often in the future.

After intermission, the evening concluded with a performance of the String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10 by Claude Debussy. Some online research revealed that Debussy’s only completed string quartet was composed when he was in the midst of stormy liaisons with women, and at odds with his fellow composer, Maurice Ravel. Whatever the effect of those distractions on Debussy, he produced a substantial four-part quartet that was beautifully performed by the Shanghai players.

The program noted that the concert was “supported by the Katherine Putnam and Reginald M. Falleti Concert Fund.” All who were present for the extraordinary evening are indeed indebted, to the fund and to the museum.

— Margo Kline covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributor.

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