April 6, 2016 The Dover Quartet, in its first appearance on the San Antonio Chamber Music Society series, called to mind one of those absurdly expensive Italian sports cars, combining top-drawer craft, nimbleness and luxury in equal measure. (One assumes, however, that the musicians – violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw – will spend less time in the mechanic’s shop.)  The centerpiece and apex of the Dover’s concert, April 3 in Temple Beth-El, was Alban Berg’s early String Quartet, Op. 3, a Romantic-Expressionist work that has lived in the shadow of the composer’s 12-tone Lyric Suite, also for string quartet. The concert opened with Antonin Dvorak’s Quartet in F (American) and closed with Dmitri Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 2 in A. Berg composed his two-movement String Quartet in 1910, under the tutelage of Arnold Schoenberg,  in a highly chromatic idiom that was fully liberated from tonally anchored harmony while retaining the lush textures and emotional charge of Romanticism. The work wasn't well-received at first, although Schoenberg himself admired it. Schoenberg’s invention of the 12-tone system lay more than a decade in the future, and Berg’s first essay in that system, the Lyric Suite, came to be seen as seminal (it was widely analyzed, widely influential and widely recorded), while the earlier work came to be dismissed as transitional or even backward-looking.  In remarks to the audience, Mr. Shaw expressed his view that Berg’s Op. 3 was among the greatest string quartets of the 20th century, and the performance that followed made a strong case for that assertion. The troupe lavished extraordinary care own every note, every balance. It was a revelation to hear notes played “am Griffbrett” (near the fingerboard) and “am Steg” (near the bridge) as integral colorations of the overall sound rather than as intrusions. If sonic beauty was never compromised, this was still a lively, rhythmically urgent, intensely passionate performance.  Throughout the concert the Dover projected a posh, plummy sound with a distinctive bloom. The Shostakovich, with its extended solo lines, cast light on the components of that sound. Both violins and the viola were closely matched in their bright, rich timbres. The cello sound was darker, less generous with upper harmonics, but well suited as a ground for the higher strings. But beyond the matter of timbre, Mr. Link’s deeply felt, deeply beautiful account of the second movement’s solo line was a stunner. Ensemble was precise even in the most intricate counterpoint of the finale. As in the Berg, the troupe managed full emotional engagement without compromising sonic beauty. The Dvorak was something of a disappointment, mainly because the Camerata San Antonio string quartet’s go-for-broke, rhythmically incisive performance of the same work a few months ago was still fresh in the ears.  In the Dover’s performance, Dvorak’s robust folk rhythms were subsumed to an every-hair-in-place Germanic intellectualism that was sonically warm but emotionally cool. Still, it was hard not to admire the Dover’s superb craft. This is a troupe that ought to return to town many times in the decades to come.  Mike Greenberg
incident light
The Dover Quartet
Purrs like a kitten
Dover Quartet
Shanghai Quartet, Wu Man
Sounds from China, familiar and strange
Wu Man and her pipa.
Members of the Shanghai Quartet with pipa virtuoso Wu Man Photo by Ben Doyle
 March 3, 2016 The superb Shanghai Quartet returned to town on Feb. 28 with pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso Wu Man  and a program that leaned heavily to music by Chinese composers.  The lone exception: Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, in one of the most luminous Beethoven quartet performances I can recall. Students at the Shanghai Conservatory established the string quartet in 1983. Three founding members remain — violinists Weigang Li and Yi-Wen Jiang and violist Honggang Li. The American cellist Nicholas Tzavaras joined in 2000. Their appearance at Temple Beth-El was sponsored by the San Antonio Chamber Music Society. Wu Man, a frequent collaborator with the Shanghai, also has been a principal musician with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. Born in Hangzhou, China, she moved to the United States in 1990 and now lives in California, though she returns often to her homeland as a visiting professor at three Chinese conservatories.  The pipa has a history of some 2,000 years in China. In its present form, it has four strings, 26 frets on its pear-shaped resonator, and six “ledges” on its neck. The instrument’s construction and its traditional playing techniques — plucking or strumming the strings, rapping on the soundboard in various ways — enable a wide expressive range. The pipa’s traditional possibilities were most clearly on display in a solo piece, the 19th-century “Xi Yang Xiao Gu”  (Flute and Drum Music at Sunset), which featured rapid tremolos, some sliding notes and wonderful variations in color.  But Wu Man also has collaborated with contemporary composers to bring the pipa into the sound world of the present. Tan Dun composed his “Ghost Opera” in 1994 for her and the Kronos Quartet. A version of that work, minus most of its original theatrical elements and natural sounds, closed this concert. The music draws from a remarkable mix of sources, from Bach to Chinese tradition to Modernist complexity. The “Earth Dance” is raucous, recalling an American hoe-down, with shouts from the musicians. The following movement is a sublime interweaving of the Chinese folk song “Little Cabbage” with  a quotation from the Prelude in C-sharp Minor from Book I (not Book  II, as the program note says) of Bach’s “The Well-Tempered Clavier.” “Metal and Stone” are evoked with forceful pizzicati, shouts and slashing downbows. The sound world is strange, sometimes frightening, but always compelling.  Agreeable but less interesting were three pieces for string quartet by Yi-Wen Jiang, based on traditional Chinese pieces but crafted in a style derivative of Dvorak; and Zhao Lin’s “Red Lantern,”  for pipa and string quartet, in a style largely derivative of Ravel, with maybe a touch of Tchaikovsky.  As in previous appearances here, the Shanghai Quartet impressed with its “distinctively plush, warm, creamy sound and interpretive refinement,” to quote from my assessment of its 2009 concert, in which its playing was sometimes too refined, too fully planned. This time, in the Beethoven F Minor, the sound was luxurious as ever, but the playing was enlivened by a freedom and flexibility that seemed to suffuse the first movement with light and the fourth with restless energy, like a living thing. The troupe was fully faithful to the score without seeming to be constrained by it.  Mike Greenberg