A musical treasure trove

Listening to the Shanghai Quartet, it would be easy to close your eyes and imagine the music being sung by a miraculous choral group. This is in large part due to the intense virtuosity displayed by the musicians behind the violins, the viola and the cello. The whole quartet sounds as if it is breathing and postulating, complaining and weeping, laughing and shouting in melody.

Last Tuesday at the Lincoln performance hall, the Shanghai Quartet performed the second program of a two-night engagement. Nearly filled to capacity, the modest PSU performance hall was a sea of gray hair and bald spots. It is, in large part, thanks to these individuals that chamber music continues to survive in Portland. After the two-hour performance, I had the distinct impression that this wonderful audience had been safeguarding a beautiful treasure.

In terms of treasure, the Shanghai Quartet is among a small set of crowning jewels and as they proceeded to sparkle through the first movement of Beethoven’s Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, much of the audience was in awe. The convivial tone of the movement was a perfect opening, sounding very much like a small group of friends who have struck up a conversation – postulating, agreeing, affirming and ever so often pausing for a breath before plunging back into the conversation. Perhaps more than any other quartet I’ve seen, the Shanghai Quartet pronounces dynamic changes with such vigor and zeal that it is a wonder that one is able to stay firmly in the seat. The musicians themselves almost seemed to hover above theirs as they swayed with the music. As the quartet continued into the second movement, the tone became slow, insistently melancholy and full of pleading breath, a truly remarkable contrast made more remarkable by the quartet, which seemed to share one mind as it hung suspended between phrases before continuing in unison.

The second piece in the program, Poems From Tang, by contemporary Chinese composer Zhou Long moved the music into the twentieth century. The four movements of the piece were inspired by poems from distinguished poets of the Tang Dynasty. The first, entitled “Hut Among Bamboo” created a lovely impressionistic landscape meant to recall a bamboo forest. The quartet adeptly created an incredible sense of space and distance. The instruments mimicked sounds of shifting bamboo forest, its leaves and stalks clacking against one another, birds calling in the distance and a lone voice singing from far away before combining to create the sound of a traditional seven string zither called a ch’in. The second and third movements of Poems From Tang are more melodic but still retain the feel of landscape. It is amazing to hear the sound of a violin so adeptly representing a high thin voice, drifting as if from a far field, suddenly throbbing with a power to rival any of Aaron Copeland’s most heroic passages. Or, as in the fourth movement, slowly becoming the perfect representation of the drunken sway of a wine-filled poet.

After intermission, it was clear that the Shanghai Quartet had created a program of contrasts as they began the first swirling, sometimes dark and assonant measures of Bela Bartok’s String Quartet No. 1, Op. 7. There is a lovely eastern-ness in Bartok’s music, the folk songs of his Hungarian heritage pushing through a wall of dominant sound. The energy in the piece was heightened as the quartet simply paused between measures, a punctuation of silence between the growing swells of music. Though fans of classical music might gag at the comparison, I can’t help but think of the music of Bartok as a kind of heavy metal classical, as akin to Metallica as it is to Beethoven. This being the case, the Shanghai Quartet could be said to have “shredded” Quartet No. 1 in the most noble and flattering terms as the cello sawed through a heavy baseline as the violins grow in energy high and fast to the three enormous chords which finish the piece.

After a long and deservedly generous ovation, the Shanghai quartet treated the grateful audience to an encore of the second movement, pizzicato, from Ravel’s quartet. The gleeful romp through a rapid waltz was perfectly delightful, sending the audience into even more rapturous applause.

The amazing performance from the Shanghai Quartet made the reasons for their renown quite obvious and by extension put a fine point on the importance of the Friends of Chamber Music in Portland’s amazing and varied music community.