Artist Interview: Shanghai Quartet

By Erik Petersons on October 3, 2012

To kick off our artist interview series for the 2012/13 season, I spoke with the cellist of the Shanghai Quartet–Nicholas Tzavaras–who has been with the quartet for 12 years.  Their opening night concert on October 19th at the Perelman Theater is their first performance on our series since 2005.  They will be joined by the distinguished American pianist, Peter Serkin.

Erik Petersons: Your program features the Philadelphia premiere of Dance Capriccio by Bright Sheng. The work, for piano and string quartet, is inspired by the dance folk music of Sherpa. Describe your collaboration with Bright and what went into capturing the various characters of Sherpa dance in your performance.

Nicholas Tzavaras: Bright and the quartet have been good friends for decades, far longer than my tenure with the quartet. In 1999 we commissioned and premiered his 4th string quartet. This was soon followed by a recording in 2001 of his 3rd and 4th quartet, his piano trio, and Bright's duo for pipa and cello. Dance Capriccio was a project that was commissioned by the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation and premiered in Detroit of February 11th of this year with Peter Serkin and the quartet. The Sherpa influence of the quintet was all Bright's.  Bright spent a good deal of time in Tibet during the Cultural Revolution and tried to "capture various characters of Sherpa dance, from slow to fat, tender to raucous even wild". I absolutely love the piece and am glad to have another great work added to the piano quintet literature. Since February we've performed the new quintet just a handful of times and its always well appreciated by our audiences.

EP: How did you choose the other works on this program? Are there connections you would make between them and Dance Capriccio?

NT: The other works on the program, Mozart's "Hunt" quartet and the Dvorák quintet are fantastic chamber pieces but interestingly get highlighted by Bright's new quintet. The new quintet, bookended by these two masterworks, makes for a very exciting and satisfying concert for the audience and the performers alike. Dance Capriccio is a very approachable contemporary work. It's tightly conceived, the perfect length, and has very attractive themes and colors as well as theatrical and technical virtuosity all contained in a single movement of about 12 minutes. Listeners always love it.

EP: You have worked with pianist Peter Serkin before. What is your history with Peter, and how does adding another musician affect the dynamic of the group?

NT: We first had the great pleasure of playing and working with Peter a few years ago at Montclair State University where the quartet has been in residence since 2002. That visit we performed the Brahms Piano quintet and enjoyed it immensely. Peter is one of the greatest artists we have had the pleasure of working with. He combines style, grace, and humility with a deep knowledge of both contemporary and standard repertory. We can play an old war horse of a quintet with Peter and feel like we are discovering it for the first time. Truly amazing. Soon after our collaboration in NJ we began to discuss the commission with the Frankels and Bright. Everyone involved hoped Peter would participate. Of course Peter came on board and it was a great success.

EP: You will be conducting a master class at Temple University prior to your concert. Can you describe this experience and what it is like to interact with young musicians?

NT: Since the quartet’s inception in 1983, teaching has played a significant role in the life of the Shanghai Quartet both on the road and at home. For the past 10 years we've been in residence at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University in NJ as well as guest professors at the Shanghai and Central Conservatories in China. We find ourselves teaching quite a bit on the road and really look forward to working with young musicians. It's also nice to see those same students at our performances every so often.

The Shanghai Quartet appears on Friday, October 19th at 8pm at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.  For tickets and information, visit the concert page or call the PCMS Box Office at 215.569.8080.