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Four On The Floor

Shanghai Quartet Gives Children a Close Look at Chamber Music

October 10, 1998|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Many musicians and composers consider music for string quartet to be the caviar of classical music. Euphemistically speaking, then, how do you introduce kids to caviar, when even most adults find it too fishy and salty? How do you introduce youngsters to chamber music, when adults stay away in droves?

"You don't play late Beethoven quartets to start with," noted Weigang Li, first violinist for the Shanghai Quartet, which launches the Orange County Performing Arts Center's second season of children's concerts today.

In reality, getting children hooked, or at least intrigued, by chamber music is easier than it might sound.

"We've done this many times over the years, and actually we've found that children are more open-minded than adults," Li, 34, continued by phone this week from his home in Richmond, Va. "Children are more interested in quartets by Bartok than adults, for instance. They're so taken by it. The modern music we play for them they think is really cool."

They also seem to love the opportunity to get close to the musicians.

"Normally, it's the first time for kids to sit so close to the performers," Li said. "Sitting six or 10 feet away, as opposed to sitting in the balcony in a big hall, is a very different feeling."

Although the Shanghai ensemble often decides the agenda for a children's program moments before taking the stage, Li said today's concert probably will open with the title tune the foursome performed on Delos International's best-selling "Heigh-Ho Mozart." Also slated are a movement from Ravel's String Quartet, one that's filled with ear-perking pizzicato, and a contemporary transcription of a Chinese folk song.

"Adults will not be bored," Li promised.

Still, adults seeking more of a beluga-grade experience will have the option to hear the Shanghai Quartet's concert in Founders Hall on Sunday, launching the center's regular chamber series. The program includes Mozart's Quartet in D, K. 575, Bright Sheng's Quartet No. 3 and, with guest violist Richard Young of the Vermeer Quartet, Brahms' Quintet No. 1 in F.

Students selected by faculty at the Shanghai Conservatory formed the Shanghai Quartet in 1983 to represent China at a quartet competition in England.

Following its second-place finish in the contest and subsequent departure from China for the U.S., the group was coached by the Vermeer Quartet at Northern Illinois University. The fledgling ensemble made its debut in New York and won the Chicago Discovery Competition in 1987, and has been touring ever since.

The Shanghai Quartet--violinists Li and Yiwen Jiang, violist Honggang Li (Weigang's brother) and cellist James Wilson--records on the Delos label and is the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Richmond in Virginia, where its members hold faculty appointments. (Wilson joined the quartet in 1990, Jiang in 1994; all members of the quartet are in their mid-30s.)

According to Weigang Li, he and Honggang enjoyed a remarkable musical upbringing in China, despite the anti-Western legacy of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in 1976.

"My parents and grandparents were violinists," Weigang Li recalled. "We heard violin since earlier than we could remember. In China, if your parents are doctors, you're very likely to study medicine. If your parents are musicians, of course you will be a musician.

"It gave us a tremendous advantage," he noted. "Sheet music was very hard to come by in China. Instruments were expensive to purchase, and my grandfather had a collection. Lessons, of course, were free."

But then, children in the United States have a few advantages the Li brothers (and Yiwen Jiang) didn't have.

"Saturdays at the Center" is one example. No Western chamber music tradition to speak of survived the Cultural Revolution--and a children's series could never have been imagined.

The Center series, recommended for ages 8 and up, continues with "Dr. Schaffer and Mr. Stern: Two Guys Dancing About Math" Nov. 7; the Cashore Marionettes Jan. 16; singer-storyteller-dulcimer player Sally Rogers on March 27 and pianists Simon and Son on June 5.

The "Heigh-Ho Mozart" album, which included music from animated features such as "Snow White," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin," provides another example.

"The three members of the quartet who grew up in China did not have the opportunity to see those Disney films," Li said. "We learned the tunes for the album, then later on, by chance, we would see or hear them on TV or radio. I'd say, 'Hey, I recorded that!' It went backward."

* The Shanghai Quartet performs twice in the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Founders Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. A family program takes place today at 11 a.m.; $6, or $20 for the five-concert "Saturdays at the Center" series. The center's regular concert series begins Sunday at 4 p.m.; $26. Free preview lecture by Herbert Glass at 3 p.m. (714) 740-7878. (Ticketmaster).

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