COURTESY WALTER COLLEY IMAGES
The Ying Quartet: Siblings Janet, left, David, Phillip and Timothy have been playing together for more than two decades.
The Ying Quartet
The talented siblings return to play Mozart, Smetana and a musical dim sum
For 20-plus years, the siblings who make up the Ying Quartet have made it a point to engage all with their music, regardless of locale.
Part of the Honolulu Chamber Music Series:
In concert: 7:30 p.m. Saturday (free discussion with quartet precedes concert at 6:30 p.m., Room 36, UH music building)
Place: Orvis Auditorium, University of Hawaii-Manoa
Tickets: $35; $20 students and Honolulu Symphony musicians
Call: 483-7123 or online at etickethawaii.com
The four of them -- violinists Timothy and Janet, violist Phillip and cellist David -- return to Hawaii this weekend after a 15-year absence. They did a weeklong residency in Honolulu in 1991, but their career as an ensemble really took off in the following year, when they received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to support chamber music in rural America.
They were warmly accepted by residents of the small farm town of Jesup, Iowa. The situation of four fresh-faced Asian-Americans from Chicago, just out of school and in their first professional gig, playing classical music in such a unique setting garnered them national press.
A year later, in '93, the quartet won the Naumburg Chamber Music Award. The Yings now divide their time among world tours, concerts and residencies, and full-time teaching at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
"Everything we've done stems from that experience in Iowa," Phillip Ying said by phone from his home in Rochester. "Since the string quartet is self-contained, we've been able to present great music in so many different locales, connecting with audiences in so many ways. It's fun to sometimes catch them off guard and surprise them."
The Ying Quartet has distinguished itself on a couple of fronts. There's an ongoing commission program called LifeMusic, in which American composers create two new works every year -- specifically for the quartet -- that distinctly reflect our country's spirit. (Four have been recorded on the British Quartz label, with a follow-up scheduled for release by the end of the year.) The group also recently shared a Grammy Award for a collaborative effort with the Turtle Island String Quartet.
The quartet's repertoire has also expanded with a selection of short works by Chinese-American composers cleverly called "A Musical Dim Sum." "We have a list of 10 different pieces so far," Ying said, "but we've already picked three that we'll be playing in Honolulu. They are 'Song of the Chin' by Zhou Long, based on that particular Chinese instrument, an incredibly colorful piece with a lot of staccato techniques. We'll also be playing 'Pizzicato for String Quartet' by Vivian Sung, and the last piece will be 'Shuo' by Chen Yi, a composition that was inspired by what he heard in the countryside of China."
Despite the quartet's intent to reinvent the tradition of classical ensemble music with their commissioned work, "the core of our repertoire is still the classics -- composers such as Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms," Ying said.
So Saturday's program will be bookended by two classical pieces, Mozart's String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major (also known as "The Hunt") and Smetana's String Quartet No. 1 in E minor.
"The Mozart selection is great, since this year has been the 250th anniversary of his birth. It's a piece he wrote for his mentor Joseph Haydn. It's a beautiful and elegant piece of music, part of a set of six. It has a lot of musical detail and is a conversation between the four instruments. It's incredibly subtle, as the music is passed from one voice to another in a repeated motif, but with a subtle difference, whether it be in one note or the rhythm.
"Smetana's composition is autobiographical in nature. The first movement declares the passions of youth, the second his love of dancing, the third speaking to his relationship with his wife, and the last movement celebrates his nationality.
"And at the end of the quartet, there's a very loud chord with the first violin playing a high E. The piece was written at the time Smetana started hearing a ringing in his ears just before he became deaf. It's a striking moment, and overall, it's a very passionate piece."