For five days this February, the four musicians who make up the highly acclaimed Ying Quartet, a string quartet based in Rochester, N.Y., made their home at Bowdoin for an intensive music residency. While they were here, the group performed for the college’s regular Common Hour on Friday, at the Museum of Art on Sunday afternoon, and in Studzinski Recital Hall Monday night. In between performances, the musicians carried their instruments to classrooms and to student practices all over campus to work with Bowdoin musicians.
The Ying quartet, who include three Ying siblings, also regularly ate in the dining halls. Phillip Ying, who plays the viola, said that while he greatly enjoyed Bowdoin’s food, he appreciated even more the outgoing students he met at meal time. “I’m so impressed that on several occasions, students on their own initiative came up to one of us to say, ‘I heard you in the Art Museum. I really enjoyed your performance; thank you for coming,’” he said.
His brother David Ying, the quartet’s cellist, added, “A lot of the places we go, students are afraid or uninterested [and don't approach us.] I think it says something nice about the culture here.”
But it also says something nice about the Ying Quartet, Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Music Cristle Collins Judd noted. “We invited a world-class quartet who knows how to engage, and were prepared to engage, undergraduates,” Judd said. “We took as many opportunities as possible for them to intersect with the curriculum. They were incredibly articulate and deeply thoughtful on what it means to make music and why it matters. And they appeared to have boundless energy.”
If people understand the human dimension to [classical] music, they’ll realize it’s not just sophisticated entertainment; it’s more than that. When Beethoven is trying to express his thankfulness at overcoming digestive problems, that’s real life. Sometimes classical music gives this aloof impression, which is not at all what we believe.
David Ying, Phillip Ying, Janet Ying and Ayano Ninomiya are invited to play in concert halls around the world, from Carnegie Hall to the Sydney Opera House. For the past eight or so summers, they have attended Bowdoin’s International Music Festival. Their quartet is considered to be both technically brilliant and uniquely imaginative. “They play the traditional repertory exquisitely,” Judd said. At the same time, “they are very active in helping to support new music.” The quartet regularly commissions artists to compose pieces for the ensemble.
On Feb. 11, in Studzinski hall, the Ying Quartet showed off their range. They performed Robert Schumann’s Quartet in A Major, op.41, no.3, and Franz Schubert’s Quartet in D Minor, D.810, “Death and the Maiden.” They also played the contemporary composer Kenji Bunch’s Quartet no. 2, “Concussion Theory,” which they commissioned to reflect an aspect of American life.
For David, this personal teacher-student rapport is what makes teaching music different than teaching other subjects. “It is what is very special about teaching music,” he said. “As far as I can tell, its still pretty hard to learn [music] out of a book.”
David described being asked a question by one student about struggle: “What do you do if you see something in a score and you can’t do it? Should some things in music make you feel like you’re struggling?”
One answer, supplied by Ayano, was “to be as true to the music as possible,” which David followed with the advice “to get behind the composer’s intentions, to use the original idea as the starting point.”
But the musicians also agreed that struggle can be an integral part of a performance. Importantly, however, they added that musicians must practice enough so that any projected struggle is just an illusion. “When the composer has put struggle into the music intentionally, then you try to capture that. You want to capture that quality of the human struggle,” Phillip said.
Part of the Ying Quartet’s philosophy is to take classical music out of the concert hall and insert it into everyday life. To do this, the quartet often plays in uncommon performance venues — hospitals, schools, offices and prisons, for example — or for audiences that are unfamiliar with classical music.
“A performance doesn’t have to happen at 8 p.m. in a concert hall,” David said. “I think a meaningful experience with music can happen anywhere.” He recounted one time when the quartet played for a semi-conscious hospital patient. “You could see this person physically respond to the music. It was very moving.”
When the Ying Quartet first began playing together in the early 1990s, they started out in a farm town in rural Iowa. “Hearing a live string quartet was a pretty alien experience” for many of their neighbors, David said. Yet, when the quartet did go into the community to play, they received a warm reception.
“It was a unique opportunity to see whether what we spend all our time doing really matters to people,” David said. “It was incredibly affirming to see that it does. Because as a musician you can start thinking you’re doing this for yourself or a few elite people who appreciate what it’s about. Our goal is to communicate more broadly than that.”
Photos by Emily Tong ’11