Ying Quartet Brings Musical Perspective to Bowdoin Classes

When one of the world’s top chamber ensembles comes to Bowdoin, it’s not just music majors who have reason to get excited.

During the Ying Quartet’s two-and-a-half-day visit this past week, in between giving masterclasses and a riveting performance in Studzinski Hall, the group took part in five different Bowdoin classes spanning topics in history, literature, and culture as well as music. In each class the internationally renowned string musicians performed a selection of works chosen for their relationship with the course material (or in one case, works written by the students themselves) and engaged students in a lively discussion about the music.

The Ying Quartet with Jill Smith's class on German literature and culture

The Ying Quartet with Jill Smith’s class, Introduction to German Literature and Culture

Below, professors Page Herrlinger, Belinda Kong, Mary Hunter, and Jill Smith describe how the quartet enriched their classes on Stalinism, Asian American literaturetonal analysis, and German literature and culture. And last but not least, students from Vineet Shende’s introductory composition class explain what it was like to have their very own pieces performed by the Yings (don’t miss the audio clip of a composition by Dylan Devenyi ’17).

Professor Page Herrlinger: Stalinism

The Yings performed Shostakovich’s Quartet no. 8 for students in my advanced seminar, “Stalinism.” Written in 1960, this is a powerful and profound work, which Shostakovich dedicated to the “victims of fascism and war.” But it is also thought to be a very personal reflection on Shostakovich’s own experience with Stalinism. Having studied the period all semester, including the impact of terror and violence on the Soviet people, students came into the session with a good sense of the context in which Shostakovich composed the Quartet, but the Yings greatly enhanced our appreciation of the piece by helping us to understand what to listen for and why – for example, how Shostakovich embedded his personal “signature” into the first four notes.  Allowing us to sit with them on stage further intensified the experience. Their performance really brought history to life for us in a unique and moving way.  In short, it was the perfect culmination to our study of Stalinism.

Professor Belinda Kong: Asian American Literature

The Ying Quartet played two pieces for our class: one by Zhou Long, a Chinese American composer born in mainland China in the 1950s, and one by Vivian Fung, a relatively young Asian Canadian composer in her 30s. Both pieces integrated elements from traditional Asian music, in effect recreating on Western string instruments the sounds made by Asian instruments such as the erhu, guqin, and gamelan. In the discussion afterward, the quartet answered questions about their own beginnings as musicians, their family backgrounds and childhoods as second-generation Asian Americans, the generational shifts in Asian American composition, the resurgence of classical Chinese music in both China and the U.S. in the last two decades with the rise of Asian capitalism, and the place of Asian-influenced compositions within the Western classical music scene today. In particular, they emphasized the increasing cultural diversity within musical compositions in the West, and the ways string quartets, both Asian American and non-Asian American, increasingly embrace diverse musical forms to revitalize classical music. One especially resonant line from David Ying was that, if one is a musician today, one should embrace the diversity of musical forms and sounds, that it would be impoverishing to musical expression not to.

Professor Mary Hunter: Tonal Analysis

The Yings participated in the “Tonal Analysis” class by talking about how the analysis of music informs every aspect of their playing. They pointed out that knowing whether a musical device is normal or surprising can really change they way they play; and trying things out in ways the composer did not write them can help them understand what the composer was getting at. It really brought the point of musical analysis to life in the most direct and wonderful way.

Professor Jill Smith: German Literature and Culture

The class I’m teaching this semester is an Introduction to German Literature and Culture, which exposes students to a broad range of literary & artistic movements and genres from the late 18th century to the 1990s. By this point in the semester, we’ve analyzed various literary texts (from poetry to the novel), experimental films and paintings, but, except for songs composed by Kurt Weill for Bertolt Brecht’s “Threepenny Opera,” we’ve done nothing with music. As David Ying said to the students, the core of the classical repertoire for string quartets comes from 19th-century German composers, with Beethoven being the most prominent. The quartet began by discussing Beethoven’s influence on classical music and then talked with the students about romantic music. What makes a piece of music “romantic?” they asked, and we discussed the dominance of emotional expression over-rational/empirical thought and the prominence of the individual in the romantic period.

The Yings then played two movements from two separate pieces from their upcoming concert program, one by Robert Schumann and the other by Johannes Brahms. The first (by Schumann) was more contemplative – slower and more dreamlike than the Brahms piece, which conveyed a sense of obsession and heartbreak at different points. We talked about the centrality of “longing” to romantic thought and how music can convey longing (“Sehnsucht” in German). The students were transfixed by the performance, and their questions focused primarily on how the quartet works together to express one particular feeling or whether, as one student put it, each instrument is responsible for conveying a particular emotion or a different shade of emotion. The intense, almost frenzied mood of the Brahms piece certainly fit perfectly with the dark novel we’re currently reading in the course, and the Ying’s beautiful performance showed the students yet another dimension of the extremely rich, complex German cultural tradition.

Professor Vineet Shende: Composition

When Shende asked each of his students to write a composition for the express purpose of being performed by distinguished visiting musicians this spring, four students chose to write for the Ying Quartet. Joined by artist-in-residence George Lopez on the piano, the quartet performed the pieces during Shende’s class this week. Here’s what the students have to say:

Dylan Devenyi ’17
Writing music for a class is always a fairly scary prospect. You always want to produce something that everyone will enjoy, but you never really know how well your work will be received. When the people who are going to play your music are professionals of this level, however, the pressure goes up to 11. You think, you have this one moment with these brilliant players, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. So you better not waste it.

The Ying Quartet themselves were simply amazing. The feedback they provided was concise, helpful, and generally positive, which helped lessen anxiety (for me at least). The effectiveness with which they interpreted everyone’s music was quite impressive given that they were sight-reading, and it was very helpful for all of us to hear what our pieces really sounded like, rather than the computer generated noises from our computers that we’re used to. Overall, I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to work even briefly with such brilliant musicians and kind people. The Ying Quartet treated us and our music with care, respect, and passion, and ultimately made us feel like collaborators rather than novices.

Chris Genco ’15
David and Phillip Ying came to our class earlier in the semester to talk about writing for string instruments and about different string techniques that we could include in our compositions. It was very exciting to have them return with the entire Ying Quartet to read some of our work. I have seen the quartet perform a few times before so it was amazing to be able to listen to them play through a piece that I had composed. The Yings put so much energy into every piece they play, so it was amazing to hear our own compositions brought to life with such a world-class ensemble.

Arindam Jurakhan ’17
To have a Grammy-winning string quartet offer to play my music was beyond inspiring. To hear my music come to life by the hands of such talented individuals was a euphoric experience. To have them compliment and critique my work was valuable and humbling. I truly enjoyed every second of the opportunity I was given.

Jacqueline Colao ’17
Not only was it an opportunity that few undergraduate composition students get to have, but it allowed me to approach writing the piece in a different way. I figured if there was anytime to take a risk it would be now, because if anyone could pull off making it sound good, the Yings could. Turns out, I was right. Not only did they play all of our pieces beautifully but they took playing them very seriously. They didn’t look down upon us because we’re only Intro to Composition students. Rather, they seemed to genuinely enjoy working with us and playing the pieces. They took into account every direction I wrote and when they felt like they didn’t achieve exactly what I had laid out in the music, they wanted to play it again to make sure they did it justice. To be taken so seriously by a group of such accomplished musicians was really incredible.

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