After more than 30 appearances in the concert halls, libraries, and Houses of the University, the familiar familial group the Ying Quartet will conclude its residency at the Department of Music. On April 18, the quartet will play their final concert as Blogdett Artists-in-Residence, for which they were chosen in 2001. The farewell concert takes place at 8 p.m. and will feature Beethoven’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 18, No. 3; Stravinsky’s complete works for string quartet; and Schoenberg’s “Verklarte Nacht” (with Roger Tapping on viola and Natasha Brofsky on cello).
Natives of Chicago, the Ying siblings began their career as an ensemble in 1992 as the first artists involved in the National Endowment for the Arts Chamber Music Rural Residencies Program. In the years since, the Yings have established an international reputation with appearances in virtually every major American city and at numerous festivals. They were nominated for Grammy awards in 2003 and 2007, and won a 2006 Grammy in the Best Classical Crossover category for their work with the Turtle Island String Quartet. The Ying Quartet has spent four weeks every year on the Harvard campus for the past seven years.
“We have had three marriages and three children born during our time at Harvard — spread out among the members, of course,” says Timothy Ying, violinist for the quartet. Violist Phillip Ying adds that one of the highlights of their time on campus was working with music faculty such as Robert Levin, “who was one of our very first quartet coaches in a summer study, the Quartet Program, around 1982.”
Besides public concerts in Paine Hall, the Yings often performed in the Houses and in classrooms, where they would illustrate musical examples. “We’d play a quartet as the starting point for a group discussion about the music,” explains Tim. “It’s been fun because we get to share works that we love and to talk about what makes them fascinating and rewarding to us. We always tell [students] that after almost 20 years of rehearsing together daily, we are eager for new points of view, and they never let us down!
“Another classroom activity,” continues Tim, “was reading composition exercises. These would range from completely orthodox and highly polished in style to wildly experimental to, shall we say, somewhat unformed. But even when you see a new score and you totally don’t get it, there’s always the possibility that it’s your own limitation that’s preventing you from understanding what the composer had in mind.”
The Ying Quartet’s ongoing “LifeMusic” commissioning project, created in response to their commitment to expanding the string quartet repertoire, currently has 12 pieces. Supported by the Institute for American Music, the Yings commission both established and emerging composers to create music that reflects contemporary American life. Michael Torke, Paquito D’Rivera, Paul Moravec, Lowell Liebermann, and Bernard Rands are some of the renowned composers and musicians who have written for “LifeMusic.” The Yings most recent recording of commissions is titled “The United States,” and was released in 2007.
“Commissioning and performing new compositions is the single most important activity that we can undertake as a quartet,” Tim says. “Hopefully this work will be enjoyed by future generations of music lovers, but even for contemporary listeners it is vital. One of the best arguments that can be made for the relevance of the historic repertoire to current society is to show the string quartet’s ability to capture our own experiences in musical terms through these new compositions. When an audience member who is exploring string quartets is able to make a connection between one of these new works and its point of inspiration — something from our shared American identity — we challenge them to make a similar connection between the quartets of, say, Beethoven, and our shared human experience. We have purposely tried to commission a variety of styles for the project, and in a way this reflects the overall quartet world.”