Monday, August 20, 2007

Queen of the Hill

Qing Li Scales the "Everest" of Violin Concertos

Saturday, August 18, 2007 @ An Die Musik

I don't know anything about classical music but I do know Qing Li (pictured at left and below), the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's's beautiful and talented Principal Second Violinist. Well, kind of. She comes into the library where I work to check out audio books (very well-read, her eclectic tastes range from Harry Potter and Haruki Murakami to Ayn Rand and American Lit classics). As a card-carrying member of America's low-wage Underclass, I've shied away from BSO performances for economic reasons (though their prices look pretty sweet compared to those for the recent Virgin Fest at Pimlico Race Track!), but when I saw a flyer announcing that she would be performing Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major, Op.61 - hyped as "the Everest of all violin concerti" - accompanied by pianist Hou-Fei Yang across the street from work at An Die Musik for a mere $10, I figured this was my chance to see Ms. Li perform. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, I was blown away.

Qing Li reaches lofty heights

Qing Li performed like a confidant, focused rock star to a packed house on the second floor of An Die Musik. It doesn't hurt that she has undeniable sex appeal; if she let her hair down, wore low-rise designer jeans and gyrated to a wind-machine and flashing lights, I'd say she could give Vanessa-Mae - the MTV generation "violin techno fusion" diva who has been called a "fiddlin' Lolita" - a run for her money. Not that she'd want to (in fact, I suspect she's a classical purist who finds V-M's approach rather cheesy). By that I only mean that she has star quality on stage, projecting a visual presence and aura before she ever plucks a note.

Vanessa-Mae invoking her muse

Watching this statuesque beauty close her eyes, heft her 1736 Nicolo Gagliano violin in place under under her chin and then frenetically work her fingers over the strings with hummingbird speed was akin to seeing Jimi Hendrix doing an extended solo - for 45 minutes! It seems to me that classical soloists can't go through the motions when performing; like ballet dancers, I believe they really have to feel the music to perform it, and Ms Li was certainly emoting the spirit of the piece. Athletes giving it their all like to say that they "left everything out on the playing field," and Ms. Li certainly did the same, her facial expressions, body movements and, well, sweat, attesting to her commitment to the music and the toll that performing this difficult work entailed. And she worked without a score, playing her notes from memory.

According to the performance flyer, Op. 61 was the only violin concerto Beethoven composed and was initially considered unplayable, only gradually acquiring the fame it enjoys today. It was written in 1806 during a period when Beethoven was secretly engaged to Theresa von Brunswick. Beethoven's love bug may have influenced the composition, as critics claim it evokes the happiness of a love poem.

Qing Li's accompanist was Hou-Fei Yang (sometimes spelled Houfei) and while the name meant nothing to me on paper, I instantly recognised her the minute she took the stage. She was another library regular, a Peabody grad student who often comes in with her boyfriend, local rock musician Greg Thuman (pronounced "Tuman" and pictured below).

In fact, the petite, classically trained Hou-Fei also plays keyboards and bass in her boyfriend's band Primal Static. But today, wearing a cheongsam-style silk blouse and black slacks, she was playing in a more traditional, serious style. She certainly has the training. Like the Beijing-born Qing Li, Hou-Fei Yang traces her roots to China where the Wuhan, China native started playing piano at age 4 and by age 12 had been accepted at the prestigious Music Middle School of Shanghai Conservatory. In 1993, William Race of the University of Texas at Austin gave a master class at the conservatory; after meeting Hou-Fei, he brought her to the university, where she earned her bachelor's degree. Since 1999, she has been studying with Boris Slutsky at the Peabody Conservatory, where she earned a master's degree in 2001 and is currently pursuing her doctorate. Along the way, Hou-Fei won Peabody's 2002 Yale Gordon Concerto Competition. (Ms. Li also holds a degree from Peabody, where she had a fellowship from 1987 to 1992.)

Perhaps less familiar with the work than Qing Li, Ms. Yang carefully turned the pages of her sheet music after eyeing the BSO violinist to make sure they were on the same page. As I said, I know nothing of classical music, but the duo sounded like they were in sync and I was impressed with their performance. The audience was, too, giving them flowers and a standing ovation.

Hou-Fei poses with flowers from a fan

Unfortunately, I had to miss the pair's encore performance, as I had to get back to work (I took a late lunch in order to catch this rare glimpse of these two artists at work), but I heard it was smashing. My co-worker Marc Sober stayed for this bonus treat, risking a potential parking ticket (he was already sweating it out during the Beethoven performance, nervously eyeing his wristwatch) but all ended well as Art prevailed and he was spared by the Meter Maids. As William Congreave said, Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak. And to save a $25 citation!

By the way, Hou-fei Yang also performed some songs on the soundtrack of the recent indie film Rocket Science.

Searching the Web to see if anyone else had reported on Saturday's performance, I ran across this review from Devin Hurd. He obviously knows more than I do about classical music, so here's his informed review below.

by Devin Hurd

Qing Li (violin) & Hou-Fei Yang (piano) @ An Die Musik, Baltimore, MD - Saturday, August 18, 2007

Performing Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major op.61

Beethoven's Violin Concerto is a fiendishly virtuosic work - initially deemed "unplayable" in Beethoven's day - and Qing Li seems to be familiar with every facet of this work. With the entire piece memorized she was clearly playing from inside the music as she deftly navigated several tricky passages with an expressive edge that was a pleasure to hear. While Hou-Fei Yang proved to be an able accompanist for this performance, I became increasingly curious about witnessing Qing Li perform this feat with a full orchestra. The second movement was particularly well executed.

The Beethoven signature technique of sequencing a melodic fragment while modulating the harmonic movement underneath it seemed more pronounced than in many of his other works. I don't recall hearing his other pieces use this procedure so frequently as it became an interesting focal point through much of this music.

The marketing of Beethoven's music is an interesting curiosity. This piece was hailed as "the Mount Everest of Violin Concertos." And while An Die Musik was packed to capacity (perhaps this tag line does sell the experience), I have some reservations about this particular pitch. The act of conquering the tallest mountain on Earth isn't as exclusive as it once was as global warming continues to raise the snow line. Anyone who can afford a climbing permit and some Sherpas can make their way to the summit these days. Learning to play this concerto seems much more challenging. And unless a piece of music is by Alan Hovhanas or is otherwise literally about mountains (like Richard Strauss's Eine Alpensinfonie tone poem) there needs to be a moratorium on comparing classical music to mountains. The fact that this is a virtuosic work by the great master performed well is all it takes to get my attention.

In addition to her BSO performances, Ms. Li also occasionally plays at the Community Concerts Series at Second Presbyterian Church. These concerts are free, so now there's no excuse not to catch this remarkable musician in performance.

Related Links:
Qing Li - BSO Bio
Qing Li - Personal Profile
Qing Li - An Die Musik Bio
Greg Thuman & Primal Static (Washington Post)
Greg Thuman & Primal Static Website



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