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UR's Shanghai Quartet exists to do one thing: make breathtakingly beautiful music.

World on a String


The rehearsal space is in the basement of the Modlin Center, although to describe it as a basement room doesn't do it justice. It is more like a nook — peaceful and serene. Leaded glass windows face out on the grassy grounds of the University of Richmond. It is a charming room, kissed by sunlight, a pleasant place to rehearse. A single desk sits in the corner with a seemingly unused computer. A microwave idles on the floor. Spider-web-slender bow hairs silently crisscross the carpet around the four chairs and four stands where the work takes place. A humidifier is parked nearby, and a stereo languishes against a wall.

Violinist Yiwen Jiang chuckles at the unadorned walls of the room. Maybe if he had more time for such niceties, he would initiate a plan to decorate, hang some artwork, bring in a plant. But after he and his three colleagues close the door, tune up their instruments and launch into Schoenberg's "Verklarte Nacht," they will be hunkered down for three or four hours. No coffee break, no hanging out at the water cooler. "The time goes by so fast, says violinist Weigang Li with a dry wit, "it feels like two hours."

On closer inspection, the walls are not completely bare. On one section of the cappuccino-colored fabric bulletin board hang photos, posters, memorabilia from tours, and reviews — outstanding reviews. Some of the best reviews ever heaped on a young string quartet.

In many languages, critics from Australia to Europe and in every major American city have tried to describe the ineffable warmth, color and profundity of the Shanghai's playing. Their luxuriant but precise sound has been compared to the Budapest Quartet, a superstar ensemble known for producing the most ravishing tone colors of any string quartet. But the Shanghai's four young musicians remain unassuming and unaffected by the acclaim they have received. Weigang Li is adamant in his modesty. "Behind [the success] is a lot of hard work and, I have to say, some luck."

The Shanghai String Quartet coalesced in 1983 when Weigang Li, his brother Honggang, and two other original members realized that forming a chamber music ensemble afforded them a rare opportunity to escape the artistic and spiritual poverty of China's Cultural Revolution.

Through inevitable personnel changes, the quartet was joined by violinist Jiang and cellist James Wilson. The Shanghai String Quartet is preparing to celebrate its 10th year in residence at the University of Richmond. An anniversary concert March 29 will feature a new work by composer Bright Sheng that was commissioned in their honor.

Each review of the Shanghai is more eyepopping than the next. One of the most adoring reviews comes from an Australian paper: "Not only do they think alike, but their techniques are totally subservient to the production of a completely homogeneous sound ... one could fantasize there was only one player producing everything." The four men have come together from distant points on the globe, melding different life experiences to forge this oneness. Cellist James Wilson hails from the college town of Ann Arbor, Mich., and still bears the quiet politeness that a Midwest upbringing engenders. Jiang grew up in Beijing and studied in St. Louis, in Dallas, and at Rutgers University. He displays a jauntiness and easy authority, a subtle self-confidence. The Li brothers seem to have diverged in personality in the way many siblings do — the younger, Weigang, is effusive, while his older brother, the ensemble's violist, admits to being "laid-back," more mellow. The analogies to food that the Quartet's members often make in conversation might well apply to their playing. Like master chefs, they have taken their various musical experiences and slow-cooked them down into a creamy, well-tempered sauce.

When describing the Shanghai's playing, a writer struggles to find synonyms for electric and explosive. But electric may have to do. When you hear them live, it sounds like they are plugged in, wired. Reviews often call their sound warm and lush, but performing "Verklarte Nacht" ("Transfigured Night") for the first time in their careers March 15 at a performance at the Modlin Center, the Quartet's tone production crackles, bristles—it agitates audience members. Those who expected a genteel night of classical music squirm in their seats, genuinely disturbed, genuinely moved. A listener can't escape the penetration of the Quartet's technique—their sound leaps off of the stage and, like electricity, doesn't rest until it finds matter. Critics frequently use the metaphor of colors on an artist's palette in the attempt to discuss a musician's ability. But for some reason, this particular performance calls to mind an arsenal. It seems that the quartet has every possible weapon in its clip, from the devastating force of the cluster bomb, to the clever subterfuge of the poison dart. No strategy of musical warfare eludes them. This might be a preposterous comparison. But Schumann once said that Chopin's music contained "cannonballs buried in flowers." The Shanghai might have nukes buried somewhere in there, too.

"They are really a first-rate quartet, and that's not said lightly," says Arnold Steinhardt. Nothing coming from Steinhardt should ever be taken lightly. As the first violinist of the Guarneri, what some would call the greatest string quartet of all-time, he assesses young musicians from a rare vantage point. However, Steinhardt is not just a distant admirer. He has mentored the Shanghai in various ways for years, having taught Jiang as a private student. But Steinhardt points out that the relationship extends back even further in time, almost as if fated. "It's been a relationship before I realized it was a relationship," he muses. The original members of the Shanghai listened to Guarneri albums when they were very young, even though owning Western recordings was prohibited amid the Cultural Revolution. The Guarneri acted as "unwitting mentors or role models to them when they were far removed [from American musical life]."

Performing with the Quartet, dining with them when their frenetic schedules overlap, Steinhardt stresses that their relationship has evolved into one of mutual admiration. "I'm an older colleague to them at this point."

Still, Steinhardt has occasion to proffer both financial and musical advice to the young musicians. After all, how many experts are there on making a living as a string quartet player? "Playing quartet music is hard," Steinhardt says. "Many musicians get so bogged down in technical challenges, in the inherent difficulties in making music, that they lose sight of the music itself." But for the Shanghai, he is full of praise, and has performed and even recorded with the ensemble. "They are an artist's quartet. They really make beautiful music."

In a lilting, humor-infused accent, Weigang Li recounts how he and his brother decided to become chamber music players. "At that time in China, no one played string quartet; to say the least, it was just not a popular thing. Everybody was working on the solo repertoire, doing solo competitions, because in China around that era if you won a competition, you're guaranteed a very good career. ... Everyone thought that's the way to heaven," Weigang reminisces. Heaven was a vague but longed-for escape, perhaps to Europe, perhaps America, perhaps to an international solo career, something beyond the stultifying choices offered to musicians in China when the Li brothers were adolescents.

In 1983, the Li brothers heard that the Chinese cultural ministry planned to send one or two chamber music ensembles to compete at an international competition in Portsmouth, England (now called the London International String Quartet Competition, one of the most prestigious in the world). The four original members of the Quartet — among the best players in their conservatory — decided that if they practiced very hard for 10 months or so, they had a good chance of being selected for the all-expenses-paid three-week trip to England. "That was the only purpose," Weigang Li exclaims, with a mischievous crinkle playing about his eyes.

The four young musicians had hoped only not to be eliminated early on so that they would not have to return to China with their tails between their legs. They ended up taking home second-place honors. "I did not expect anything like that," says Weigang Li. "Before the competition, we had never heard any other string quartets [performing live] in my life. All we had were a few recordings. Those things in China are very scarce — you could not find them. ... We didn't know how well or how badly we played, we just had no concept, no criteria. We just worked from ground zero."

It has been reported in chamber music critic circles that the Quartet should have won the top prize. Weigang Li, with a philosopher's attitude, sighs, "It's probably better that way, because we had a very small repertoire. If we had won first, then we would have been offered a concert tour, and we would have had nothing to play." A few jury members of the competition strongly encouraged the foursome to stay together. They had heard something special. Soon, so would the rest of the world.

Quartet playing is so different from solo or even from piano trios," says Weigang Li. "It's just a very different kind of playing. The best soloists in the whole world can get together and it could be a terrible quartet — it's never going to work, period." There is as, Li puts it, "a quartet sound," a blending of musical intentions that results in an alchemical transformation of sound. It is rare, highly sought-after and treasured by music lovers since Haydn demonstrated the perfection of the string quartet as a compositional style. What makes this kind of music-making particularly vexing is that quartet players are usually ambitious, opinionated individuals. Jiang recounts, "You might spend a lot of time and energy to search for something you think is so beautiful, and that's the only way to do it," referring to the hours upon hours of daily introspective practice that the players subject themselves to before even entering the shared rehearsal space. All of the players admit to pulling late nights ("I don't want to say how late," murmurs Honggang) practicing. And after all of that thoughtful attention to their own parts, "others might disagree — strongly," says Jiang, recalling the film "High Fidelity," a hilarious documentary about the Guarneri String Quartet. Jiang notes that for all the famous bickering displayed in that film, the venerable quartet was actually on good behavior. "Sometimes you have to relinquish a cherished idea," Jiang says. "When you work in this kind of environment you have to be strong enough and secure enough. ... We are humans — we feel differently, we come from different families, we trained differently."

Disagreements naturally result when intelligent people engage in producing art. But ultimately, there is always a frontier of respect that is never breached. "I think that is something you must have before you even form the quartet — mutual respect to each member," adds Jiang. "Otherwise there's no way you can work together; you know if you don't like this person, if you hate his playing so much, why bother to play together?" The intensity of that four-way relationship, forged in the daily crucible of a deeply intellectual enterprise, is what fascinates music lovers. "Human beings are human beings. You try not to hurt other people's feelings. It's almost like we're married," reflects Honggang Li.

But even married couples divorce, and quartets go through personnel changes. "It's never an easy time to get through, but we've been through four or five personnel changes," says Weigang Li. James Wilson, the ensemble's third cellist, joined the group in 1990. And during a particularly turbulent time, Honggang Li switched to viola, while Jiang joined as second violinist. "The first couple of times it got really painful," admits Weigang Li. "You just have to tell yourself it's going to turn out OK. So far, every time we've had a personnel change, it's worked out very nicely. ... If Honggang and I were not brothers, probably the quartet would have disbanded a long time ago."

Occasionally, a quartet will have a married couple in its ranks. Siblings are less common. These particular brothers are also very close in age. There is an element of fraternal squabbling, as would be expected.

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