The four Ying siblings, collectively known as the Ying Quartet, returned once again to Indy after helping the Ensemble Music Society inaugurate the Indiana History Center Theater in July 1999 as the town’s brand-new music venue. Featuring first violinist Timothy, second violinist Janet, violist Phillip and cellist David, the Yings — Chicago-born Chinese-Americans — are becoming a to-be-reckoned-with force in the string quartet world. Perhaps because of the competing third presidential debate, the IHC was a bit less than filled last Wednesday.
The program’s highlight was also its centerpiece, which the Yings entitled “A Musical Dim-Sum.” As David explained to us, the term is the Chinese equivalent of “small samplings”; thus we heard three short pieces by three Chinese composers influenced by Western music. They effectively brought about a fascinating cultural confluence.
First came “Song of Ch’in” or “Old Fisherman” by Zhou Long (b. 1953) — a sonic display grounded solidly on the key of G, and filled with open fourths and fifths — in the expected Chinese fashion. But the piece slowly evolved into a dominating Western structure while hanging onto the G key center. Though the Yings got “extra” sonic effects from their instruments, there was sufficient standard bowing and harmonizing for all those elements to produce a satisfying musical experience.
This applied equally to the other two “Dim-Sum” pieces: Fu, String Quartet No. 1 (1983) by Ge Ganru and “The Talking Fiddle” by Chen Yi (female, also b. 1953). Fu is a study in string glides with sustained half-tone ones, with interpolated plucking, followed in turn by the group revving up to a faster pace in the manner of a choo-choo train. “The Talking Fiddle” makes prominent use of the pentatonic scale (the piano’s black keys only), leading to a lively discourse. Clearly the Yings, being at home in this cross culture, well-communicated the three samplings to oriental and occidental alike.
The Yings framed these Chinese specialties with two Russian standards, opening with Anton Arensky’s Quartet No. 1 in G, Op. 11 (1888). A relaxing, pleasant, none-too-profound late Romantic work, the Quartet shows hints of Tchaikovsky. Following slight pitch problems at the beginning, the Yings settled into delivering a well-polished, well-balanced reading but not a particularly rich ensemble sound.
From “hints of” to the real thing, the players ended with a rough-in-places account of Tchaikovsky’s ambitious Quartet No. 3 in E-flat Minor, Op. 30. With this, his final effort in the genre, the composer mastered the medium structurally, but, except for the slow movement, it lacks the first-rate musical ideas we expect from Tchaikovsky the orchestrator, and thus comes across as long-winded. A better choice would have been his immediately engaging first quartet, from which comes the world-famous Andante cantabile — a piece never heard here from any of the major chamber presenters.