Hear composer Ye Xiaogang’s musical work Colorful Sutra Banner, inspired by the Buddhist prayer flags he saw in the Tibetan landscape. The same artists who played the composition’s American premiere at Lincoln Center perform on this podcast. Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E-flat Major and Franck’s Piano Quintet in F Minor complete the program.
Colorful Sutra Banner: Shanghai Quartet, with Gloria Chien, Piano
Weigang Li, violin
Yi-Wen Jiang, violin
Honggang Li, viola
Nicholas Tzavaras, cello
Gloria Chien, piano
String Quartet no. 1 in E-flat Major, op. 12 (1829)
Adagio non troppo—Allegro non tardante
Molto allegro e vivace
Colorful Sutra Banner for Piano, Violin, and Cello (2006)
Weigang Li, violin
Nicholas Tzavaras, cello
Gloria Chien, piano
Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor (1879)
Molto moderato quasi lento—Allegro
Lento, con molto sentimento
Allegro non troppo, ma con fuoco
This concert was presented on November 12, 2017, as part of the twenty-fifth season of the Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series and in conjunction with the exhibition Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia.
String Quartet no. 1 in E-flat Major, op. 12
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
Despite the academic and social obligations he faced while at Berlin University (1825–29), Felix Mendelssohn continued the remarkable outpouring of creative work that marked his youth. Early in 1829, he became absorbed in preparations for the revival of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Mendelssohn led a performance of Bach’s composition in Berlin on March 11 and almost single-handedly inspired the restoration of Bach’s legacy. A month later, he set out on a grand tour of Europe, a graduation gift from his family that took him from Scotland to Rome over the next three years. The first leg of the journey led him to London. Two friends—the pianist Ignaz Moscheles and Karl Klingemann, secretary of the Hanover Legation in London—guided him through the city’s geographical and social maze.
Elegant, witty, educated, handsome, well mannered, and almost fluent in English, Mendelssohn made an immediate impression upon the cultural lions of London, especially since he observed the gentlemanly custom of not asking for a fee when he played in their salons. He created a sensation at his public debut on May 25, 1829, in the Argyll Rooms on Regent Street at a concert of the Philharmonic Society. (Seven years earlier the Society had commissioned Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.) “At the end of the concert,” Mendelssohn wrote home, “they kept applauding as long as I kept thanking the orchestra, and I handsshakte [sic] till I left the hall.” Thus began the artistic love affair between Mendelssohn and the musical cognoscenti of Britain. Five days later he further impressed audiences by performing Weber’s Konzertstück as piano soloist from memory, an unusual feat in those days. In June, he completely won them over by conducting his Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture.
Mendelssohn remained in Britain that summer to take a walking tour of Scotland, whose lore and countryside inspired him to write the Hebrides Overture and the “Scottish” Symphony, which he later declared to be his finest work in the form. In November, shortly before he returned home to Berlin, he was elected an honorary member of the Philharmonic Society by unanimous vote. After his spectacular debut season, Mendelssohn visited England nine more times during the remaining eighteen years of his too-brief life. “The people here like me for the sake of my music and respect me for it,” he wrote to his friend, the singer Eduard Devrient. “This delights me immensely.”
One of the products of Mendelssohn’s first visit to England was the work heard here: the String Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 12, completed in mid-September 1829. The warmth and euphony that Mozart associated with the key of E-flat major finds a Mendelssohnian progeny in the first movement. A thoughtful introduction, piquantly harmonized, opens the quartet. The main theme, in quicker tempo, is a flowing hymnal melody whose strong beginning phrases are nicely balanced by quieter gestures as the melody unfolds. The subsidiary subject (dolce, “sweetly,” instructs the score) outlines a downward shape. The development section is based largely on transformations of the main theme that are impelled by urgent accompanimental figurations. A full recapitulation completes the movement.
The Canzonetta, whose name derives from a sixteenth-century vocal genre of light expression and in a dancing nature, acts as the quartet’s scherzo. The outer sections of the movement’s three-part form (A–B–A) are delicate and mysterious, a kind of ghostly processional. The center is occupied by a winsome trio of brighter harmonic cast whose diaphanous style Mendelssohn summoned better than any other composer. The Andante follows no fixed form but is instead a lyrical flight, grown from the opening theme, that becomes more elaborate as it proceeds. A tranquil coda returns the mood of the first phrases. The finale, in the key of C minor, is a whirling tarantella, the traditional Italian dance whose exertions are said to rid the body of the poison of the tarantula spider’s deadly bite. To re-establish the quartet’s nominal tonality
and to round out the work’s formal cycle, the important motives of the first movement are used to form a substantial coda.
—Richard E. Rodda, PhD
Colorful Sutra Banner for Piano, Violin, and Cello
Ye Xiaogang (b. 1955)
Ye Xiaogang is regarded as one of China’s leading contemporary composers. From 1978 to 1983 he studied at the Central Conservatory of Music in China and after graduation was appointed resident composer and lecturer there. In 1987 he began studies at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York. Since 1993 Ye has divided his time between Beijing and Exton, Pennsylvania. Entrusted with cultural tasks as a member of the Chinese Parliament, Ye is also vice chairman of China’s Musicians’ Association, vice president of the Central Conservatory of Music, and founder and artistic director of the Beijing Modern Music Festival, the largest contemporary music festival in the Far East.
He has received numerous prizes and awards, including the Alexander Tcherepnin Prize and the Japan Dance Star Ballet prize, and honors from the Urban Council of Hong Kong, the Taiwan Symphony Orchestra, the China Cultural Promotion Society, the Li Foundation (San Francisco), and the Chinese National Symphony Orchestra. In 2013 Ye was given the China Arts Award. He has served as a fellow of the Metropolitan Life Foundation as well as on the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Ye’s oeuvre comprises symphonic works and a range of chamber music, stage works, and film music.
Much of his music bears a connection to Chinese culture and tradition. In The Song of the Earth for soprano and orchestra, premiered in 2005, Ye uses the original Chinese texts on which Gustav Mahler based his symphonic work of the same name. The work has been performed in New York (Avery Fisher Hall), Munich (Philharmonie), Berlin (Konzerthaus), Venice, Rome, and Lucerne. In the Macau Bridge Suite no. 2 (2001) and Four Poems of Lingnan (2011), which were recorded by the Macau Orchestra in 2014, Ye also refers to old Chinese legends and texts. Within the Tropic Plants Series, each work is named after a tropical plant and characterizes the homeland of the southern Chinese composer. In August 2008, pianist Lang Lang premiered Ye’s piano concerto Starry Sky during the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing.
The composer’s deep attachment to nature and Buddhism is shown especially in such compositions as the Tibet Series. In Twilight of the Himalayas (2013), he gives his impressions of traveling through Tibet and Nepal. The music of Colorful Sutra Banner is a recollection of his journey to the Tibetan Plateau. The fluttering sutra banners are viewed as a sacred symbol among Tibetans, and they make up the beautiful scenery of the Tibetan landscape and mindscape. This work is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia.
Notes provided by the Shanghai Quartet
Quintet for Piano and Strings in F Minor
César Franck (1822–1890)
At the concert of the Société Nationale de Musique in Paris on December 14, 1878, César Franck’s Piano Trio, op. 2, was given its first performance in France—thirty-six years after it was composed. Franck had not written another piece of chamber music since the Trio of 1842, but its enthusiastic Parisian reception encouraged his many students, disciples, and admirers to urge him to take up the chamber forms again. Accepting their advice, Franck settled on a quintet for piano and strings, a genre then in vogue in Paris. He worked on the score throughout 1879 and completed the piece shortly before its premiere at the Société Nationale concert on January 17, 1880.
The event produced one of the most extraordinary scenes in the annals of French music. Camille Saint-Saëns, founder of the Société Nationale, pianist in the premiere, and recipient of the work’s dedication, stormed off the stage at the end of the performance, pointedly leaving behind the score that the composer had presented to him. Saint-Saëns was incensed, it seems, by the music’s intense, almost febrile passion, a quality that the premiere audience acclaimed but from which the fastidious Saint-Saëns surmised illicit motivations. César Franck—exemplary church organist, author of high-minded compositions, and head of a well-ordered family life with his wife and children—was rumored to have been inspired by his feelings for Augusta Holmès, a student not half his age.
In her mid-twenties when Franck composed his quintet, Augusta Holmès was born in Paris of Irish parents and displayed considerable talents as a poet, singer, and all-round musician. Saint-Saëns claimed that “we are all of us in love with her” and dedicated to her his symphonic tone poem Rouet d’Omphale (Omphale’s Spinning Wheel). The bitter condemnation that Félicité Franck heaped upon her husband’s piano quintet indicates she was incensed at more than just the musical content of the piece. Even the worldly Franz Liszt, a longtime champion of Franck’s music, thought the quintet’s vehement expression may have overstepped the bounds of proper chamber music.
The quintet’s opening movement is a large, thematically rich sonata form that draws much of its material from the two starkly contrasted motives presented in the introduction: a dramatically impassioned descending line in the violin and a humble piano reply in sad, rocking rhythms. These two ideas, repeated in juxtaposition, lead without pause to the main body of the movement, whose principal subject is derived from the introduction’s descending motive. A wealth of complementary themes follows, most lyrical, many with a restlessness that provides the music’s dominant emotional personality of yearning tinged with inchoate tragedy.
The emotional temperature of the quintet drops somewhat for the Lento, whose main theme is presented by the violin in disjunct phrases floated upon a pulsing piano accompaniment. The movement’s subsidiary subject is given in dialogue between the first violin and cello with a smooth, wide-ranging counterpoint provided by the piano. A faint echo of a theme from the first movement provides a sense of cyclical unity. A brief development section and a condensed recapitulation complete the movement. An agitated figure in the violins ushers in the finale’s principal theme, a tragicheroic motive in leaping rhythms first stated in its full form by unison strings. Against a rustling string background the piano plays the second theme, derived from a motive heard in the Lento. After the development, which is based largely on the main theme, and the recapitulation, the quintet ends with a triumphant coda whose broad theme is a transformation of a motive used in both earlier movements, thus unifying the form of the entire work.
—Richard E. Rodda, PhD
The Shanghai Quartet, one of the world’s foremost chamber ensembles, is renowned for its passionate musicality, impressive technique, and multicultural innovations. Its elegant style melds the delicacy of Asian music with the emotional breadth of Western repertoire, allowing it to traverse musical genres, including traditional Chinese folk music, masterpieces of Western music, and cutting-edge contemporary works. Formed at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983, the Quartet has worked with many of the world’s most distinguished artists, and it regularly tours the major music centers of Europe, North America, and Asia. Recent performances range from the international music festivals of Seoul and Beijing to the Festival Pablo Casals in France, the Beethoven Festival in Poland, the Yerevan Festival in Armenia, and the Cartagena International Music Festival in Colombia. Among their collaborations with noted artists are performances with the Tokyo, Juilliard, and Guarneri quartets; cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Lynn Harrell; pianists Menahem Pressler, Yuja Wang, Peter Serkin, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet; pipa (Chinese lute) virtuosa Wu Man; and the male vocal ensemble Chanticleer.
The Shanghai Quartet currently serves as quartet-in-residence at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University in New Jersey, as ensemble-in-residence with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, and as visiting guest professors of the Shanghai Conservatory and the Central Conservatory in Beijing. This concert marks the twenty-fifth consecutive season that the Shanghai Quartet has appeared as part of the Meyer Concert Series.
Gloria Chien, piano, made her orchestral debut at the age of sixteen with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The Boston Globe later selected her as one of its Superior Pianists of the Year. In recent seasons she has performed as a recitalist and chamber musician at Alice Tully Hall, the Library of Congress, the Phillips Collection, the Kissingen Sommer Festival, the Dresden Chamber Music Festival, and the National Concert Hall in Taiwan. She performs frequently with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and is a former member of CMS Two. In 2009 she launched String Theory, a chamber music series at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The following year she was appointed director of the Chamber Music Institute at the Music@Menlo Festival. In 2017 she joined her husband, violinist Soovin Kim, as co-artistic director of the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival in Burlington, Vermont.
This performance by the Shanghai Quartet and pianist Gloria Chien was presented as part of the twenty-fifth season of Bill and Mary Meyer Concert Series of the Freer|Sackler and in conjunction with Encountering the Buddha: Art and Practice across Asia.
The podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by SuMo Productions. Web design by Ryan King, with additional web production by Torie Castiello Ketcham. Copy editing by Nancy Eickel. Photography by Colleen Dugan. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performances at the Freer Galleries.
The Meyer Family and the Freer Gallery
Early in 1915, Charles Lang Freer met Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer at a New York exhibition of Chinese art. Their shared interest in the arts of China led to a relationship with the museum that has spanned three generations of the Meyer family. In the last years of his life, Freer helped the Meyers assemble an exceptional collection of Chinese art. Agnes Meyer later bequeathed many of those objects to the Freer Gallery of Art, where they are often on view. Katharine Graham, a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Meyer and the publisher of the Washington Post, provided a substantial gift when the auditorium was renovated in 1993 and renamed in her parents’ honor. A second renovation, completed in 2017, was supported by the Philip L. Graham Fund. The grandchildren of Agnes and Eugene Meyer established a concert series in 1993 in memory of their parents, Bill and Mary Meyer, to feature the Musicians from Marlboro and other virtuoso performers.