Ying Quartet show will be contrasts of light and dark

05:00 AM, Nov 17, 2013

The Ying Quartet performs Sunday at Kilbourn Hall and in February will be playing in Newtown, Conn. (Provided by Melvin Kaplan Inc.)/


Written By Daniel J. Kushner

If you go

What: The Ying Quartet performs the world premiere of Lera Auerbach’s String Quartet No. 8 Syliva’s Diary alongside the music of Beethoven and Brahms.
When: 3 p.m. today.
Where: Kilbourn Hall, Eastman School of Music, 26 Gibbs St.
Cost: $15 to $25.
For tickets: Available at the door, (585) 454-2100 or esm.rochester.edu/concerts/tickets.

As part of the Eastman-Ranlet Concert Series at Kilbourn Hall, Rochester’s own Ying Quartet today will present the kind of program that is all too underrepresented in classical music today: a thought-provoking combination of well-known favorites by veritable legends and just-born pieces by living composers.

And while this concert featuring the music of Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms and Lera Auerbach promises to be stylistically diverse, it may also turn out to be a showcase for the dazzling spectrum of musical moods available to composers.

The first half of the performance will feature the juxtaposition of String Quartet No. 5 in A Major, which David Ying calls “maybe Beethoven’s most cheerful quartet,” and the world premiere of String Quartet No. 8 Sylvia’s Diary by Auerbach, based on the life and poetry of Sylvia Plath, who took her own life at the age of 30.

Upon noting that many of her most beloved poets struggled with suicidal thoughts and actions, Auerbach turned to Plath’s personal writings to gain clarity, according to her notes on publisher Sikorski’s website. “How could it be that the most sensitive people who bring so much joy to others through their writings, would give up on life?”

Eastman School of Music’s Hanson Institute for American Music commissioned the work. “Just knowing Lera’s music and the subject matter, it’s going to be intense and personal and dark,” says David Ying, who plays the cello.

Violist Phillip Ying sees Sylvia’s Diary as an ideal demonstration of why the string quartet is distinctive among musical groups, like a choir but without words, this one that also includes violinists Ayano Ninomiya and Janet Ying.

The four single voices that can be perfectly matched, that have incredible versatility in terms of colors and articulations and textures, and of course covers the range from violin down to the bass of the cello: something about that purity — the musical purity and then the intimacy — has encouraged composers throughout history to be very personal and very direct and starkly honest, and that I think is when you get pieces that are so emotionally arresting,” he says. “I think you get to the heart of why we become musicians, you know, to have that kind of deep communication.”

David Ying also recognizes the psychological resonance that string quartet music has among composers.

A lot of composers wrote very, very personal pieces for string quartet and other small ensembles,” he says. “But especially string quartet seems to have attracted many composers’ deepest thoughts, still even today.”

The program’s second half consists of Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor. A composer is “always kind of skirting the edges of whether something is strong or weak, or for that matter, uplifting or melancholy,” says David Ying. “That sort of combination and ambiguity in music is wonderful because you can hear it many times and hear different things in it.”

The Ying Quartet’s connection to Rochester first began when its founding members were students; the musicians became local fixtures when the ensemble was named the faculty quartet-in-residence at the Eastman School of Music in 1997.

Multiple recordings, a Grammy Award, some changes in membership and innumerable concerts later, the quartet maintains its commitment to community. David Ying, with his wife, pianist Elinor Freer, are artistic directors of Skaneateles Festival. Phillip Ying is artistic director of Greentopia’s music fest.

Musicians “can do much more good for the cause of music and the arts in their own community than they can in communities in which they visit,” David Ying says. “We as musicians have a chance to contribute, to even generate community by means of the arts, by means of music.”

Looking forward, he says, the quartet sees more commissions and more collaborations, all toward what the dynamic of chamber music — and more specifically, the string quartet — can answer.

To play with people whose musical minds and souls you respect and are curious about and fascinated about — the sense of direct interaction between musicians is so appealing,” he says.

This season, the Ying Quartet has another Eastman Ranlet concert on Feb. 23 with pianist Leon Fleisher, and several other concerts that criss-cross the country.

Perhaps most notable is on Feb. 16, when the quartet is set to play in Newtown, Conn., a little over a year after the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The featured compositions, which include music by Beethoven and contemporary composer and jazz musician Billy Childs, were selected by Newtown Friends of Music.

The program is one, says Phillip Ying, “in which we think of music as healing.”