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Ying Quartet champions new works bit by bit

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoThe Ying Quartet, an ensemble-in-residence at the Aspen Music Festival and School comprising siblings Janet, Phillip, David and Tim Ying, left to right, performs a recital Saturday at Aspens Harris Concert Hall.
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ASPEN It seems like a natural: The Ying Quartet, a foursome of Chinese-American siblings, making a CD of works by Chinese-American composers. The resulting album, Dim Sum, released on the Telarc label in January, does indeed, sound like a natural marriage in the hands of the Yings, violinists Tim and Janet, violist Phillip and cellist David: Chinese harmonies and techniques, fused with the Western, classical music tradition of the string quartet.For the Yings, however, the Dim Sum project is no more natural than playing Anglo-derived folk music, collaborating with jazz artists, or performing the compositions of a Latin-jazz or a jam-band icon. Or of playing the standard repertoire for string quartets Mozart, Haydn, Tchaikovsky that has been around for hundreds of years.Its hard to be a musician and not be intrigued by these worlds, said Phillip Ying, sitting with his brothers and sister in an Aspen condo, just before a rehearsal session. You grow up now listening to the wildest things, a huge range of music. Its hard not to want to explore.That might be the musical hallmark of our time, continued Tim. Two hundred years ago, you could only listen to the music in your town. Now we have the widest range possible, available to us in our living rooms. This is the first time in history this has happened.As it turns out, the living room that the Yings shared as kids was in the Chicago area home of the electric blues, contemporary rock icons Wilco, jazz pianist Herbie Hancock, rapper Common and violinist/indie rocker Andrew Bird, who plays Belly Up tonight. All four Yings from the oldest, 44-year-old David, to the youngest, Janet, 38 were born in the States, to a Chinese-born father, and a Chinese-American mother, a product of St. Louis. Their upbringing included some touches of Chinese culture, especially the cuisine.We are Chinese. We cant get away from that, said Tim. But we saw American TV, went to American shopping malls, ate in American restaurants.I feel thoroughly American, answered Phillip.The Yings mother, who was trained as a schoolteacher, put instruments into her childrens hands to keep them out of trouble. In fact, her intention was that they play piano: As you see, were very rebellious, said David. The rebellion went only so far as to encompass the choice of instruments. They attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., where they studied with the Cleveland Quartet, which Tim likens to Little Leaguers being coached by the New York Yankees. It was in Aspen that they made their first formal appearance as a brothers-and-sister act, playing in a master class conducted by the Cleveland Quartet at the Wheeler Opera House. Several years later, they solidified their commitment to the quartet by taking a residency, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, in the agricultural town of Jesup, Iowa. It was seven years ago or 15, depending on which of the siblings memories you rely on that the idea was floated that the Ying Quartet play a piece by Chou Wen-chung, a Chinese-born composer who became, in the U.S., a protg of avant-gardist Edgard Varse. The idea sat there, while other Chinese-American composers, most notably Tan Dun and Bright Sheng, became prominent. Suddenly, we realized we had the makings of a repertoire niche, said Phillip.It also kind of fit our heritage in certain ways, said Tim. Of all the different music you could play, you want to find something that fits you.Thus was born the Dim Sum album, so named because, like the dim sum cuisine, the CD features bite-sized works either one-movement pieces, or portions of larger compositions. The CD, recorded in upstate New York last year, features works by Chou Wen-chung, Tan Dun and Bright Sheng, as well as Canadian-born Vivian Fung, Chinese-born Lei Liang, and separate pieces by husband-and-wife Zhou Long and Chen Yi, both Chinese-born composers and professors at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.The Ying Quartet has no plans to offer up another serving of Dim Sum. Nor have they ruled out the idea of expanding their Chinese-American repertoire: It seems China, as a country, is growing so much, so fast, in every way. I imagine there will be a lot more music, said David.The Ying Quartet had no trouble in finding music that fit them before they embarked on the Dim Sum project. Their foundation, said Phillip, was laid during the years they spent studying with the Cleveland Quartet, and thus includes Mozart, Bartk, Brahms and Haydn. As their career took off, they embraced the opportunity to champion contemporary works. Through their LifeMusic project, which commissions two new works a year, they have introduced new works by the likes of Cuban-born, Latin-jazz saxophonist Paquito DRivera, Ned Rorem and Michael Torke. A specialty they seem particularly proud of is their knack for discovering young composers who go on to big things, including Kevin Puts, who created a quartet for the Ying a decade ago, and had his cello concerto premiered in Aspen by Yo-Yo Ma two summers ago.The Ying collaborated with the jazz combo, the Turtle Island String Quartet, on (4 + Four, which earned a 2005 Grammy Award for Best Classical Crossover Album). They were featured on Seis de Mayo, a 2004 classical music CD by Phish singer-guitarist Trey Anastasio. (Anastasio invited the quartet to perform with him at the Bonnaroo Festival, but they were unable to fit it into their schedule.) They are associated closely with jazz pianist Billy Childs, performing with his band and playing his compositions. Among their more interesting relationships is with composer and computer Tod Machover, with whom they are exploring various ways to combine music and technology.The Ying Quartet, which has been an ensemble-in-residence with the Aspen Music Festival for several years, performs a recital at Harris Hall on Saturday that reflects some of their interests. The concert features a Haydn quartet; works from Dim Sum by Chou Wen-chung, Vivian Fung and Lei Liang; and, with violist Sabine Thatcher, Mendelssohns String Quintet No. 2 in B-flat major. The full quartet is also featured in a concert by pianist Andreas Haefliger on Thursday, July 24; and Phillip and David appear in a chamber music concert on July 26, performing a Schubert Quartet for Flute, Viola, Cello and Guitar.Playing jazz, Chinese-American music and other projects not connected to the origins of the string quartet has only refreshed the Ying Quartets appetite for the core repertoire. Last year, they earned a Grammy nomination for their recording of three Tchaikovsky quartets.You go back to playing Mozart, and because of all the exploring, it sounds even fresher, said David. You dont take for granted how great, how fresh it is.Moreover, the wide variety of contemporary styles they have taken on reinforces the idea that the string quartet, some 250 years old, remains relevant.People think, Oh, the string quartet, thats a worn-out medium, said Tim. But no. The idea that you can use a string quartet to play Chinese music? There are more uses for a string quartet than there ever was.

A Recital by the Ying Quartet takes place Saturday, July 19, at 8 p.m. at Aspens Harris Concert Hall. Tickets are $46. Music Festival tickets are sold at Harris Hall, the Wheeler Opera House or call 925-9042. stewart@aspentimes.com


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