Yings perform Puccini, Ravel,
Debussy, and Musical Dim Sum
By John Mark Rafacz
The members of Ying Quartet demonstrated their extraordinary ability to communicate—through music and words—in their 2003 and 2005 appearances at Penn State. The quartet returns to Schwab Auditorium in a concert of works by late European and contemporary American composers at 7:30 p.m. Friday, February 13.
The four siblings from Chicago—violinists Timothy and Janet, violist Phillip, and cellist David—possess exceptional energy, intelligence, and passion. The New York Times describes their performances as “riveting and uplifting.”
The quartet’s eclectic program at Penn State features Debussy’s Quartet in G minor, an 1893 masterpiece that forms a bridge from nineteenth-century Romanticism and twentieth-century Modernism.
The program also includes Puccini’s I Crisantemi, a single-movement elegy written in 1890 in response to the death of the Duke of Savoy; two movements from Verdi’s String Quartet in E minor, the only surviving chamber work by the famous opera composer; and a section the Yings call Musical Dim Sum, which offers three short works by composers of Chinese heritage Chen Yi, Vivian Fung, and Lei Liang.
Debussy’s lone string quartet typifies the qualities that mark his compositions.
“He was a quintessentially French composer,” says Taylor Greer, associate professor of music theory at Penn State. “His sensibility is based on freedom and improvisation, on the world of dreams and subtle nuances of color and emotion. He was really a pioneer of modern music, yet many considered him a kind of quiet revolutionary.”
Although he was trained for a decade, beginning at age 10, in the traditional setting of the Paris academy, Debussy rebelled against the entrenched notions of what was appropriate in music.
“Throughout his whole life he had nothing but scorn for the academy and its reliance on strict rules and formulas,” Greer says. “He really reacted strongly against the dominant role of German music, which was filling the European stages and concert halls. One of his one-liners, which he wrote, is: ‘There is no theory. You merely have to listen. Pleasure is the law.’”
The composer was “quite the character,” Greer adds. “Real hedonist. Lived for pleasure.”
Debussy is often called an Impressionist, but the composer rejected the label.
“I think that you cannot look at his music without thinking of it in context with other arts of the day—painting and literature,” Greer observes. “So he’s always been called an Impressionist since some of his earliest music was performed.”
Ironically, Debussy was not fond of the major artists—painters such as Monet, Renoir, and Degas—associated with French Impressionism.
“His own personal taste in art was other painters … Watteau—he’s an eighteenth-century French guy—Turner, Whistler as in Whistler’s Mother. Those are painters that he liked,” Greer shares. “He also was quite fascinated by the wave of Orientalism that swept over Paris during that time. But for better or worse, he will always be associated with the Impressionist label, and in many pieces it is a good starting point to appreciate the delicate nuances in his music.”
Debussy’s creations are actually more in line with a lesser-known movement in the art world of the late nineteenth century.
“An ism that would really be a little more appropriate would be Symbolism, but that’s kind of a complex world,” Greer mentions. “It’s a world of dream, ambiguity—and poets like Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, these would have been examples of Symbolists. These are poets that Debussy read and loved and then set some of their text to music.”
Debussy’s compositions exhibit three major characteristics—exoticism, a sense of spontaneity, and color.
A defining time in the life of Debussy and the rest of France in the twilight of the nineteenth century was the 1889 world’s fair in Paris. The Eiffel Tower opened to celebrate the universal exhibition. That summer Debussy experienced music and dancers, in particular gamelan ensembles from southeast Asia, which had a significant impact on his music.
“Debussy—and many other composers of the day—heard that music and was just enthralled, thought it was glorious,” Greer says. “So one of the things that influenced him was the sound of the music, their scales, and that ended up in his own music in very specific ways later, even if he didn’t use the same instruments that those musicians had in Paris that summer.
“He never set foot in Indonesia, in Russia … . Basically he traveled to England, he went to that island Jersey [off the coast of France] … , and a tiny bit in northern Spain, and yet his music sounds exotic. It sounds like music of the world. And that’s one of the incredible paradoxes about his style.”
Another characteristic of his music is the impression that it’s being invented on the spot.
“And yet, to achieve that effect, Debussy revised and revised his scores. It was never a quick and easy thing for him. A real perfectionist,” Greer says. “A critic once said about him, ‘Like any Frenchman, building a bridge, cooking a meal, or laying out a garden, Debussy felt, he imagined, he reasoned, and he constructed, in that order.’ There are some interesting things there, that he’s a real sensualist. He really lives for pleasure, and yet there’s some order there. There’s some kind of logic that organizes all that spontaneity.”
The third characteristic is Debussy’s fascination with new kinds of sounds.
“The last thing about his music is that he so cultivated the concept of color—tone color, timbre, texture,” Greer notes.
“It’s a curious coincidence … that some of the moments in that quartet they almost sound as if they’re influenced by American jazz, and that’s largely because of the harmonies. But there’d be no way he would have ever heard a jazz piece in 1893. It didn’t exist yet,” Greer points out. “But there’s a kind of curious parallel between French music at the turn of the century and the birth of American jazz.”
The presentation of the Debussy quartet is part of the Penn State Institute for the Arts and Humanities 2008–2009 Moments of Change multidisciplinary initiative Astonish Me! The Turn of the Twentieth Century (1889–1914).
The Yings, who began playing as an ensemble in 1992 and won the prestigious Naumburg Chamber Music Award in 1993, are devoted to making chamber music—the classics and new works—relevant to everyday life.
The ensemble, which plans a two-day residency working with students and faculty at Penn State, has been quartet-in-residence at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music since 1996 and at Harvard University since 2001.
Artistic Viewpoints, an informal moderated discussion featuring Timothy and Phillip Ying plus Greer, is offered in Schwab Auditorium one hour before the performance and is free for ticket holders.
For more information about Moments of Change, contact Institute for the Arts and Humanities Director Marica S. Tacconi or visit the institute online.
7:30 p.m. Friday, February 13
Giacomo Puccini (Italian): I Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums)
Giuseppe Verdi (Italian): Andantino and Prestissimo from String Quartet in E minor
Chen Yi (Chinese-born American): Talking Fiddle
Vivian Fung (Canadian-born American): Pizzicato for String Quartet
Lei Liang (Chinese-born American): Gobi Gloria
Claude Debussy (French): Quartet in G minor
University Park Student $15
18 and Younger $25
John L. Brown and Lynn Sidehamer
The Norma and Ralph Condee Chamber Music Endowment underwrites chamber music presentations at the Center for the Performing Arts.