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Ying Quartet cooks up more musical dim sum

March 27

Salt Lake Tribune
By Catherine Reese Newton

The Ying Quartet is coming back for seconds.

The quartet's 2002 performance in Salt Lake City, featuring its trademark "musical dim sum," was one of the highlights of the musical season. On Thursday, the Yings (three brothers and a sister) will close the inaugural season at Westminster College's Vieve Gore Concert Hall with another program featuring short works by contemporary Chinese composers.

"It's a fun project," the quartet's cellist, David Ying, said in a phone interview from Rochester, N.Y., where he and siblings Timothy (violin), Phillip (viola) and Janet (violin) teach at the Eastman School of Music. (Another brother, Dan, plays the bass, but not professionally.) "The most Chinese thing about our upbringing [in Chicago] was eating Chinese food, so it's fun to explore this part of our heritage as well."

On Thursday's dim-sum menu are:

l Zhou Long's "The Old Fisherman," which Ying said was inspired by the chin, an ancient zitherlike instrument. "I'm told it can be plucked dozens, if not hundreds, of ways," Ying said. "Like a lot of things Asian, it's a philosophy as well as an art form." He said Zhou re-created the sounds of the chin in a string quartet setting. "It's very beautiful and very poetic."

l Ge Gan-Ru's "Fu," also inspired by traditional Chinese instruments - and by Chinese calligraphy. "The musical sounds start with a note or two," Ying said. "It's all about the gesture of the bow more than a profusion of notes. It's like a paintbrush in what it conveys in style and aesthetics. It gets more complex, in the way the original brushstrokes do."

l A section from Chen Yi's "At the Kansas City Chinese New Year Concert," written for the Ying Quartet. It, too, was inspired by a traditional Chinese instrument, the two-stringed erhu. At one point in the piece, Ying said, "literally the instruments speak the Chinese words for 'Happy New Year.' It's quite clever and humorous. . . . It sounds like a party."

Also on the program Thursday are the Brahms Piano Quintet and Arensky String Quartet No. 1.

"The Arensky is also quite unusual," Ying noted. "Though his name is a little more familiar, mostly people play his Piano Trio. . . . [The quartet] has traditional elements, but it's also very Russian. The first half of our program is very international, with composers really celebrating their heritage - merging a central European art form with their ethnic background."

The Brahms is "a masterpiece, certainly one of my favorites, and many other people's as well," Ying said. "It's one piece that just expresses everything about being a human being in one gigantic 40-minute suite." Taking the piano part is Ying's wife, Elinor Freer. "Considering that no one [in the family] was fortunate enough to master the piano, it's quite convenient for us that she is a wonderful pianist," Ying said. He also noted that violinist Timothy and his wife are "supplying replacement parts" for the quartet, with a toddler daughter and another child on the way.

Ying said the last time he and Freer played together in Salt Lake City, both had a bad case of the flu. "So we don't have really sharp recollections of it," he said.

Pianist Karlyn Bond, director of Westminster's music program, has been a close friend of Freer's since they were in graduate school at the University of Southern California together. She said the Yings are "just a wonderfully engaging group . . . an exciting group for students to hear. It's impossible not to get excited when they express their excitement about the music."