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Weigang Li and the Shanghai Quartet
Returning to Norfolk After 32 Years
Violinist Weigang Li of the Shanghai Quartet talks about returning to Norfolk Chamber Music Festival for the first time since attending as a Fellow.
The first time the Shanghai Quartet (Norfolk ’86, ’92) came to Norfolk, they were Fellows visiting the U.S. for the first time and barely spoke any English. “The Tokyo String Quartet had organized a late Beethoven Quartet seminar,” recalls founding violinist Weigang Li. “To this day I still remember the things we rehearsed and learned that summer.”
“I remember hanging out every night with the Tokyo players and Jesse Levine,” he says. “We learned English and how musicians lived their lives. It had a profound influence on us.”
Today the Shanghai Quartet returns as an internationally-acclaimed, award-winning quartet in demand around the world. They have collaborated with everyone from Peter Serkin and Yo-Yo Ma to the Tokyo, Juilliard and Guarerni quartets. Although this is their first return to Norfolk Chamber Music Festival since being Fellows, they have performed at Music Mountain in nearby Falls Village for almost 3 decades.
Not bad for a quartet that was formed 35 years ago solely to win a competition in England. Li and his brother, violist Honggang Li, were studying at Shanghai Conservatory at the time. China had recently opened its doors to the West and the cultural minister announced that in a year they would hold a national chamber music competition. The winner would be sent to Portsmouth, England to participate in an international competition. “We were all doing solo repertoire at the time,” Li says. “My brother and two friends — we thought if we get together and really rehearse for a year, we have a good chance to go to England. We didn’t intend to stay together forever.”
“We started to practice and started to really like chamber music,” he continues. “We grabbed every foreigner who came to Shanghai [to perform] to coach us.” You can guess the rest. They won the Chinese competition, went to England and came in second in the international competition.
Violinist Yehudi Menuhin and violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi, then of the Vermeer Quartet, were among those encouraging the young quartet to continue. “We said we just formed for the competition. These are the only four pieces we play,” Li says.
They decided, however, to give it a try. While they had some initial trouble getting permission to leave China to study, they eventually succeeded. “After we came to the States, we started learning how to play quartets properly,” Li says. “Here there are some of most prominent quartets [ensembles] in the world.”
One reason Li, his brother, violinist Yi-Wen Jiang, and cellist Nicholas Tzavara — the current configuration for the past 18 years — prefer chamber music is the repertoire. “The greatest body of western classical music literature is for the string quartet,” he says, ticking off Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert and Shostakovich as a few examples. Mozart wrote 23 string quartets, while Haydn wrote 68 and Shostakovich 15. In the last four years before his death, Beethoven only wrote string quartets. “In some ways the repertoire is even greater than the symphony literature,” he says, “and better than violin solo literature.”
The Shanghai Quartet made its New York debut in 1987 and began playing 70-100 concerts worldwide. Before 2000, they spent most of their time in the West but are now spending more time in Asia. “China is probably going to be one of the largest classical music markets in the world,” Li says. “Some say that’s where classical music will survive.”
As part of an effort to build loyal and knowledgeable audiences for classical music, the quartet is currently performing the complete Beethoven quartet cycles in secondary Chinese cities. “That was unthinkable even 10 years ago,” Li says, noting China is building concert halls around the country.
Sustaining a Quartet, Li says, is a bit like sustaining a marriage. “You have up and downs and tensions and friendships and arguments and life is happening [outside the Quartet],” he says. “Music is the thing that keeps us together. You need another three people to play this music. At the end of the day the different philosophies and arguments are trivial to our common goal, which is to play.”
“At the end if we can’t agree, like the U.S. Congress, you have to go with the majority. If the vote is 2-2, we have to see if we can convince one of the other people.”
All that fades away once the group is on stage. “When you’re on the stage, it’s like a different animal,” Li says. “So in the next rehearsal we discuss it again and sometimes you come to a different conclusion.”
“You have to have curiosity to keep the music growing,” he adds. “You play a piece 500 times and you see it like a fresh painting. That is the key to not being burned out.”
By Janet Reynolds
Janet Reynolds is a writer, editor and content strategist living in Connecticut. She’s a lifelong cellist and viola da gamba player, and has played in the Farmington Valley Symphony Orchestra for 36 years.