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Shanghai Quartet shows dedication to new music in Freer Gallery of Art concert

Shanghai Quartet. (Courtesy of Shanghai Quartet)

On Thursday night the Shanghai Quartet returned to its old haunt at the Freer Gallery of Art, whose free concert series the quartet has graced regularly since 1995. Expectations demand that it play a mix of Eastern and Western music and that some new music be included, both of which are the quartet’s specialties. On those two counts, certainly, this concert was a success.

Bright Sheng’s fifth string quartet pushed the musicians to the edge of their abilities, from the brutal “Bartók” pizzicatos in the cello that open the piece and punctuate its sections, a tribute to the Hungarian composer whose “Miraculous Mandarin Suite” inspired the quartet’s subtitle, “The Miraculous.” Frantic pizzicatos and whirring scales did not always line up as they should here, and something about the interpretation revealed the work’s repetitive nature.

The compact and muscular “Scherzo” by American composer Robert Aldridge, commissioned in honor of the Shanghai Quartet’s 30th anniversary, upstaged Sheng. For most of its 11 minutes, there were hints of mostly tonal, folk-style fiddling that kept this music fresh and fun. Neither of the earlier works on the program quite held up to comparison with the Shanghai’s dedication to the new pieces. Haydn’s “Fifths” quartet (op. 76/2) was not as crisp and elegant as it should have been, the pacing often rushed and not unified, with a broken string on the cello at the start of the third movement adding to the problems. Verdi’s E minor quartet felt similarly uncomfortable, except for the graceful “Andantino,” a rare moment where the musicians did not give in to a tendency toward stridency.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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