Shanghai Quartet begins 40th anniversary tour in city

Yao Minji
The Shanghai Quartet has relocated from New Jersey to Tianjin, China, to teach at the Tianjin Juilliard School. The inaugural concert of its 40th anniversary tour was sold out.
Yao Minji

The Shanghai Quartet's inaugural concert of its 40th anniversary tour was a sellout.

The concert at the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall last weekend, was held in the larger symphony hall rather than the chamber hall, where chamber music concerts are usually held.

The ensemble's next stop is a rare four-concert series with a different program in April in Guangzhou, where the musicians had previously only performed twice.

The venues' confidence in the concerts may attest to the quartet's audacious decision to relocate from New Jersey to Tianjin, China, to teach at the Tianjin Juilliard School in 2021.

By then, the internationally renowned string quartet had made over 30 recordings, performed nearly 3,000 concerts worldwide, including in all of the world's top classical music venues, and appeared in films such as Woody Allen's "Melinda and Melinda" (2004).

Shanghai Quartet begins 40th anniversary tour in city
Ti Gong

Shanghai Quartet kicks off its 40th anniversary tour at Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall.

They had been performing in China more often for 20 years, but moving back with families was a difficult decision. When four university students formed the Shanghai Quartet in the fall of 1983 at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, they wanted to revive China's "nonexistent" chamber music.

"Classical and chamber music was small. We knew nothing then," first violinist Li Weigang said.

"In recent years, chamber music groups have grown, with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra encouraging and staging them. We may be close to a breakthrough, and hopefully many good ensembles will emerge in the coming years."

Li and his older brother Li Honggang founded the group to compete at the 1985 Portsmouth International Quartet Competition. With little chamber music experience and few pieces, they practiced seven days a week for seven hours. The group finished in second place, much to everyone's delight.

"I'm glad they're still performing abroad after 40 years. All were talented soloists but dedicated to the ensemble. Quartets struggle the most. They rarely last this long," said Ding Zhinuo, second violin of the Shanghai Female Quartet, founded in 1960, who trained the Shanghai Quartet before their competition.

"Chamber music was nearly nonexistent. Training was unstructured, and resources were scarce. We used what we had, including my US recordings."

Shanghai Quartet begins 40th anniversary tour in city
Yao Minji / SHINE

Viola Li Honggang looks through old photos brought by their violin teacher, Ding Zhinuo.

Last weekend's concert featured Mozart's "String Quartet No. 19," or "Dissonance," one of the few pieces available to the group.

"We have really performed this piece a lot for 40 years, from the very beginning, but it's not getting any easier," Li Weigang said, explaining why the tour begins with Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven.

"Haydn refined it. Over half of his 70+ string quartets are historical firsts. It flourished in classical times. Every Beethoven string quartet is great. As in school, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven fascinate us and teach us something new."

Shanghai Quartet begins 40th anniversary tour in city
Ti Gong

The four members are in their 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

The Li brothers' second violinist, Yu Xiang, joined in 2020. The 35-year-old is younger than the ensemble, but they both love chamber music and want to help develop China's chamber music.

"When I was in primary and middle schools specialized in classical music, we had chamber music teachers and curriculum, but still it was only starting, and everyone wanted to be soloists," Yu recalled his childhood in Inner Mongolia and Shanghai.

"For six years in middle school, I was the only chamber music group member. I loved chamber music and thought performing solo was too lonely. Joining the Shanghai Quartet, which I admired in school, and passing on the spirit to inspire more young Chinese to enjoy chamber music is a dream come true."

Yu's decision to return to China hinges on that, and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, a New York native who joined 23 years ago at age 25, may find it hardest.

"Americans don't understand China. Joining this quartet and visiting China more often is an honor," the cellist said, recalling his first trip to China in 2001.

"It has been amazing as more organizations appreciate chamber music and it gets more welcomed and celebrated here."

Shanghai Quartet begins 40th anniversary tour in city
Ti Gong

The quartet members share a "wonton wrapper" cake shaped like the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall.

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