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Part Two

World on a String

Weigang happily discloses that his slightly older brother bosses, or tries to boss him around. "It's something that's going to go on until we die," he claims, adding with a chuckle, "or until one of us dies!" Yet there really isn't the competition that one might expect between enormously talented siblings.

In fact, the only thing that might be a source of friction is the height differential. The 36-year-old Weigang Li is taller than his older brother. Honggang jokes that he cleared the way for Weigang, making it easier for him to grow those lanky limbs.

"Our parents were very wise in trying to train us," Weigang acknowledges. "We both played violin, and they purposely led us to play different repertoire, for two reasons. One, so we don't compete with each other directly, and even more important than that is so we get to know more repertoire. When you hear a brother play a piece [over and over], sometimes you almost know how to play it."

With so many years spent developing solo chops, why does a string player choose to sublimate his will to that of three other people?

"It just happened. It wasn't really planned," says Weigang. But he certainly would not have preferred orchestral playing. "You're not as involved; I mean, you can be involved with your own part, but that's the only thing you can make sound as good as you imagined it. ... A quartet is a very special area — a lot of people say the quartet is the ideal form of making music, the highest level of making just purely music ... because it's complete. If you play solo, you have one line; with an orchestra you have a conductor. This is more like a collective effort of making something really wonderful. [In orchestral playing] the tempo is given by the conductor, and you have to match with people around you, you cannot try to stick out — that would be bad orchestral playing. ... You're trying to be very involved and committed and play beautiful music, but there is a box," he says, pantomiming a small, confining space around his body, "and that is the width of your freedom."

The metaphor of freedom, of breaking out of a box, resonates with the other members. To the man, they never wanted to be symphonic players. It never occurred to Jiang, even with his great love for the symphonic repertoire, to become an orchestral player. "You become like an instrument rather than an interpreter. ... You have to obey the conductor's interpretation," says the Shanghai's second violinist. "Playing in the string quartet, you have much more freedom. You have arguments and disagreements, but we are four conductors."

Steinhardt, Jiang's former teacher, says that the young violinist "could have done anything. He is smart, he's very talented, disciplined, hard-working and inquisitive. He had options," alluding to the solo, orchestral or academic career that awaits a young player with such capacious talent. In fact, every member of the group has the sheer virtuosity to be a principal player in a major orchestra or to pursue a solo career. Jiang saw joining the Shanghai as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and considers himself very lucky.

Jiang's ambitions hover a little closer to the surface than the other members, and he freely admits that to play at the level of the Shanghai you have to come in with a spark, a certainty of one's own ability. "I think ... you have to have a certain amount of ambition. You want to be recognized, you want to do something creative, but on the other side you have to meld together as one unit no matter which part you play. ... But when it's time to shine, you can't hide behind anything. That's what makes the quartet [playing] so interesting, so different."

All the players share this passion for the unique opportunity offered by quartet playing. To spread the gospel, the quartet will coach other chamber music ensembles under the auspices of the University of Richmond's new Artist's Diploma. Honggang Li says that although the musicians entering the program will be formed into chamber ensembles, the program will also serve as an excellent all-around instruction for any kind of music-making. Playing chamber music "helps you understand music better. It helps you to understand the structure, to listen. And you have to learn how to deal with people — that's the personal level — and also, how to rehearse. You have to learn how to think, because in orchestra you basically follow the conductor. There's no conductor here [in quartet playing]."

Cellist Wilson also displays the profoundly intellectual mindset of the typical quartet player, as well as the spiritual searching that often happens after early career success. "I actually have done a lot of thinking about why I play cello ... and it doesn't necessarily have to do with the note production. A lot of it has to do with communicative skills involved, and I think that's why I wouldn't do well in orchestral situations because ... you don't individually bring across what you're thinking the music sounds like."

Wilson is only nine credits away from acquiring a master's degree from Peabody, studying the development of quartet style through Haydn's career. He feels that even in applied skills like the visual arts or music performance, having the sheepskin seems integral to success in the academic universe. "Of course now I realize how hard it is to work and go to school at the same time."

Increased acclaim has brought increased pressures, particularly time pressures. For Honggang Li, this means less time to play his beloved violin. Since switching to the viola, he has had to focus on transferring his mastery of the violin to its lower-pitched, more stubborn cousin. Rather than trying to practice both, "If I have a little extra time, I play with my kid." Li's 8*-month-old baby boy is "the first baby of the Quartet."

Li doesn't anticipate his child becoming a musician, "unless," he interjects with emotion, "he has more talent than I have."

Of course, this self-disparaging tone is wholly out of line with reality. The Shanghai receives praise from all corners for their exquisite tone colors and superior presentation of all kinds of music.

Joanne Kong, a collaborator with both the Quartet and with Wilson as a piano-cello duo, explains that the Quartet, "strives to maintain the members' individual sounds, while at the same time producing a unified interpretation. While some quartets may work for a unified "'mass' of sound, what is so wonderful about the Shanghai is that their performances draw the listener's attention to the subtle interplay of musical lines, and they explore an extraordinarily wide range of tone color, within the context of highly refined ensemble playing."

Already being pointed to as one of the great quartets of their generation, they are too busy with the day-to-day work of expanding their repertoire to bask in self-admiration.

"I cannot say 100 percent, but I think that not too many quartets work as hard as we do," says Jiang. A newlywed, Jiang has struggled to keep up some of his outside interests, which include photography and gourmet cooking. Known among his colleagues for a great tiramisu, Jiang feels it is important to do other things besides practice the violin all day long. The other disciplines he enjoys all "have something to do with the imagination ... making music, you have to have the same kind of judgment" as preparing a good meal.

As hectic as their schedules are, there is a peace and clarity that comes with shouldering such enormous talent. When imagining what other careers he might have pursued if he had not become a musician, Weigang Li immediately exclaims, "I have no idea."

When Wilson ponders the possibility of setting aside the grueling travel schedule, the options are all musical — sharing his love of music with youngsters, obtaining a Ph.D. There is no agonizing over lost opportunities like so many thirtysomethings who feel like they've missed the boat: no plotting a move to law, or day-trading, or screenwriting.

For these four, no matter the future of their partnership, music will always be the central pillar of their individual lives. When pressed to imagine a life without the violin or viola, Honggang Li reflects, "Well, if I didn't have an arm, I could still teach music." That's the level of devotion — a life without playing the violin would have to mean something catastrophic had happened, like having an arm cut off. And even lacking hands to make music with, there's something inside you that makes you a musician.

The Quartet generously shares that love with other people, frequently making friends with people while on tour. There is a uniformly warm feeling toward the Shanghai Quartet in Richmond's Chinese-American community. "We're very, very proud of the Shanghai," says Julie Laghi, an active member of The Organization of Chinese Americans. The ensemble's participation in the annual concert for The O.C.A. represents, "a big contribution to the Chinese community," says Laghi. The annual fund-raiser, which is bolstered by the Shanghai's appearance, raises most of the funds for the O.C.A.'s operations, particularly the Chinese school. "They have always supported the Chinese community," notes Laghi. "They have volunteered a great deal of their time."

The three Chinese-born members became U.S. citizens in February. "I know more about the history and the politics of this country than probably 80 or 90 percent of Americans," boasts Honggang Li. "But not only because of the [citizenship] test — I've always been interested in politics. ... Despite a lot of problems in this country, still, this is one of the greatest countries." After 10 years in Richmond, this truly is home now for all four of the musicians. Wilson readily calls Richmond one of the friendliest places he's ever lived. And with the happy finalization of the immigration process, Honggang Li declares, "We're officially an American quartet."

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