It’s interesting how often folk music from one country can suggest an unlikely kinship with folk music from other, far-flung regions of the world. The more I listened to Bright Sheng’s Dance Capriccio for Piano and String Quartet on Thursday at the Freer Gallery — where it was given a handsomely played Washington premiere by pianist Peter Serkin and the Shanghai Quartet (the musicians for whom the piece was composed) — the more I heard echoes of Janacek and Bartok.
Even the most resourceful ethnomusicologist would be hard-pressed to find links between the folk music of the Sharpa people of western Tibet (which Sheng uses as the foundation for this piece) and the Czech and Hungarian folk music employed, respectively, by Janacek and Bartok. Yet the angular fragments of melody and primal, syncopated dance rhythms in the Dance Capriccio kept conjuring those earlier masters’ more pungent chamberworks. Sheng’s way of alternating ethereal string figures with furious counterpoint in the strings and pulverizing attacks on the keyboard also suggested a link among these disparate composers.
Mozart’s String Quartet No. 17 (“The Hunt”) received an elegant, buoyant treatment from the Shanghai players that emphasized the score’s rhythmic lilt. But it was the performance of Dvorak’s glorious Piano Quintet in A, Op. 81, that challenged their reading of the Sheng piece for emotive firepower. Serkin’s uncommonly forceful delivery of the piano part, together with the Shanghai’s vibrato-rich mix of silvery, intense upper strings and fat-toned viola and cello, projected Dvorak’s own take on Czech folk material with thrilling abandon.
Banno is a freelance writer.