Review: Shanghai Quartet with pipa superstar Wu Man at the Freer Gallery

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By Stephen Brookes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 6:36 PM

If, like most of us, you lie awake at night wondering what great things a string quartet could do if only it included a Chinese lute, you should have been at the Freer Gallery on Friday night, when the superb Shanghai Quartet and pipa superstar Wu Man joined forces. There were, of course, the usual lute-free quartets from Beethoven and Schubert, and a couple of folk-song-y works for solo pipa. But what raised the evening out of the ordinary - far, far out of the ordinary - was composer Lei Liang, who brought pipa and quartet together in a work so brilliantly original and inarguably gorgeous that the two may never be the same.

The concert opened conventionally, with Beethoven's early Op. 18, No. 3 Quartet in D. It's a likable, rather gentle work in most hands, but the Shanghai players chose steel over charm and turned the thing into a powerhouse, playing with razor-sharp precision and pitiless logic. While it never quite achieved that spontaneous feel that makes these quartets sound fully alive, it was a wonderfully ferocious and illuminating performance nonetheless. Wu then took the stage (and shifted the tone) with Huiran Wang's delicate and light-filled "Dance of the Yi People" for solo pipa, which she brought off with effortless virtuosity.

But this was all prelude to Liang's "Five Seasons," a sonic tour de force from a composer not yet 40. Full of rapturous invention, it unfolded with all the naturalness of a turning planet as it worked its way through the cycle of birth, death and renewal. The pipa and the quartet achieved a kind of exuberant synergy together, as if each were leapfrogging over the other in a mad rush to expressive extremes, and when it ended, it ended too soon. The evening closed with Schumann's Quartet in A, Op. 41, No. 3, and as you would expect, heartstrings were tugged, garments were rent, and there was much Sturming und Dranging to and fro. All good fun, and the Shanghai brought it off with affection and tasteful restraint.

Brookes is a freelance writer.


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