Richardson — I haven't researched how often pianist Chih-Yi Chen, violist Che-Yun Chen, cellist Bion Tsang, and violinist Naui-Yuan Hu have worked together, but judging from their respective bases of operations—Indiana University, University of Southern California, and University of Texas (Hu working primarily as a concert violinist), I doubt they meet regularly. That makes their concert of Saturday, Dec. 8, under the auspices of Chamber Music International, all the more remarkable.
Part of the credit, however, goes to the hall in which it was presented, the sanctuary of Saint Barnabas Presbyterian Church in Richardson. I'm not sure what it is about that interconnected collection of triangles with a rift down the middle of the ceiling that makes it such a great place to play or listen in (and until now, I hadn't considered that having the organ's pipes so close to the performers might have an agreeable effect on the sound), but my impression is of a hall that is never less than acoustically marvelous.
The first half of Saturday's acoustical marvel began with The Stream Flows, music of Chinese composer Bright Sheng. Often played in its arrangement for violin alone, it was presented here in its original version for solo viola; and as much as I enjoy the violin version, I think it's at heart a viola work. It's based on a Chinese folk song, and to my ear, the viola is a little better suited than the violin for representing a human voice, producing everything from a high soprano to a contra-contralto. Furthermore—and this may have more to do with Chen's artistry than the notes themselves—the shifts in tonality and modality, as well as the frequent glissandi, sounded more natural coming from the darker instrument than they ever have from a violin.
Violinist Nai-Yuan Hu, the performer for whom Bright Sheng arranged The Stream Flows for violin, was joined by cellist Bion Tsang and pianist Chih-Yi Chen in Sheng's Four Pieces for Piano Trio (1991), very nearly a Pulitzer Prize winner that shares many technical features with the earlier solo work. The first and last of the Four practically raise the glissando to a principal--certainly beyond its normal employment as an embellishment--and the two frenetically paced inner movements test the performers' technical skills, but even more their ability to communicate with each other during performance.
Bright Sheng, to put it bluntly is all over the place; it's difficult to go through a year around here without encountering a performance of something of his. Tsang-Houei Hsu, however, is not so well known in these parts. That's a pity, because this composer—who studied with Messiaen and Jolivet in the 1950's and spent much of the 1960's collecting and documenting Taiwanese folksongs—deserves much wider recognition, a case which Nai-Yuan Hu made strongly in his brilliant performance of Hsu's Five Preludes for Solo Violin.
The Five Preludes stands as, among other things, a lesson in orchestration for a solo instrument. More about treating individually the folksongs on which the movements are based than about applying as many different techniques as possible in the course of one work, this orchestration lent the work a weight that helped it stand out, even in the company of Dvořák and two works by Sheng.
The second half of the program was given to Dvořák's Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat, Op. 87, and it brought all four artists—Chen, Chen, Tsang and Hu—on stage for a performance that made it nearly unbelievable that these four don't play together all the time. From the Brahmsian polyphony of the first movement to the gypsy-influenced finale, communication between players was clearly driving the now-introverted, now-gregarious masterpiece.
Two things stood out, though—one beautiful, the other white-knuckle scary, and both were their own kind of awe-inspiring. First, the near-operatic dialogue between cello and piano in the second movement: judging from the look on his face, Tsang could have been baiting a fishhook or making an omelet rather than providing his half of an impassioned duet. This is not to say he's an inexpressive performer, just that he was letting all that expression come through his cello, and it was magnificent.
No less magnificent was Chih-Yi Chen's recovery from a page turner's slip-up. In the return to the third movement's opening after the Trio section, and without missing a note (the pianist herself would probably protest "Oh, I missed a note all right!" but I know this piece, and I heard nothing amiss), Chen turned pages, played another measure, turned more pages, played more, turned more—it seemed to take forever. Compounding the problem, the music was always moving forward, and she was playing forward, but she was turning pages backward. All this activity never appeared to affect the others in the ensemble; they may not even have known it was going on literally behind their backs.
An incident like this isn't something anyone should wish for, but when it happens—and note well, it never happens on a recording—you suddenly realize how live a live performance can be. And when it's handled this well, you know that, whatever you paid for your ticket, you got a bargain.