Robbed of a live performance in honor of Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday, the Ying Quartet had a “bee in their bonnet” to play one of the composer’s most packed quartets.
Therefore, this week’s Chautauqua program will begin by way of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, the last of his middle-period quartets and a premonition of his late quartets. Opus 95 is also the only quartet Beethoven released with a title of its own: “Serioso.” The name derives from the third movement’s tempo marking, “Allegro assai vivace ma serioso.”
According to Phillip Ying, the Ying Quartet’s founding violist, the composition is one of the shortest and most compact of all the Beethoven quartets.
“The piece manages to negotiate between dynamic extremes and emotional character extremes almost in the blink of an eye,” Ying said. “That mix of emotions is really powerful, something I think portrays the past few months of our lives; the way a range of thoughts and feelings can be tied together all at once.”
Live from Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall at Chautauqua Institution, the Grammy Award-winning Ying Quartet will perform at 4 p.m. EDT Monday, Aug. 24, on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform. The Ying siblings, from Winnetka, Illinois, formed the quartet in 1988 while studying at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. Now in its third decade, the quartet has established itself as an “ensemble of the highest musical qualifications,” combining “brilliantly communicative performances with a fearlessly imaginative view of chamber music in today’s world.”
The second piece of the evening’s performance is Antonin Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 51.
“We chose to pair these pieces for maximum emotional contrast,” Ying said.
Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major, Op. 51 was composed in 1879 at the request of German violinist Jean Becker, the leader of the Florentine Quartet. Becker specifically asked for a “Slavonic” quartet, eastern European folk music based on the music of the composer’s Bohemian homeland.
When we were finally able to get together, it was a renewed sense of joy, of meaning, of how much we love doing what we do,” Ying said. “It has really forced us to wrestle with the value of live music-making, but the possibility for artistic growth can always be there. It’s like a fire that keeps you going and no matter what external circumstances you face.”
Ying said the quartet is “very optimistic and very expansive” as the phrases unfold in “much longer periods of time” than what Beethoven’s pacing allows.
“That’s one reason we love it so much — you can almost indulge in the beautiful sounds that unfold and take you to these wonderful places, as opposed to the Op. 95, where Beethoven is grabbing you by the collar and shaking you and making you listen at every moment,” he said.
Believing that chamber music can be a meaningful part of everyday life, the quartet has performed in wide-ranging settings — arenas, schools, juvenile prisons and even the White House.
But that was before the COVID-19 pandemic caused a three-month gap, which Ying said is the longest the group has gone without playing.
The pandemic is hard to compare to anything, Ying said, but still, it remains a “part of the story of their lives,” one he said he hopes to leave “better than before.”
“When we were finally able to get together, it was a renewed sense of joy, of meaning, of how much we love doing what we do,” Ying said. “It has really forced us to wrestle with the value of live music-making, but the possibility for artistic growth can always be there. It’s like a fire that keeps you going and no matter what external circumstances you face.”
This series is made possible by Bruce W. and Sarah Hagen McWilliams.