BRUNSWICK, MAINE--When my string quartet, Seraphina, traveled to the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition this spring, we were all looking forward to meeting David Ying, the cellist with the Ying Quartet, an all-sibling string ensemble (our quartet is comprised of two sets of sisters.) We knew that, given the opportunity, we'd have a lot of questions for Mr. Ying.
We talked with him after the competition, and he gave our quartet both generous praise and constructive criticism. He also talked with us about what it means to play chamber music with the people most closely related to you in the world—your siblings.
The Yings grew up in Chicago and started playing together professionally in 1992 when they won an National Endowment of the Arts grant designed to support chamber music in rural America. The Yings spent the year in residence in the town of Jessup, Iowa (population 2000) and their chamber concerts were so popular throughout the community that they were featured in national and international media, including The Strad magazine. The following year they won the Naumburg Chamber Music Award, and soon the Yings became established as one of the premier American string quartets, performing on concert series and at music festivals in the U.S. and abroad.
The Ying Quartet's programming is creative, often incorporating works by American composers. Their current project, which they call "Musical Dim Sum" involves selections of works for string quartets by composers of Chinese heritage living throughout the world.
The Yings also have what is possibly the most clever website of any string quartet, featuring this drawing by the late cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, whom the Yings played for in his New York apartment in 2003, towards the end of his life.
My quartet is currently at Bowdoin International Music Festival, but the Yings, who teach there in the early part of the summer, have already left for their next round of festivals. So I caught up with David in by email to ask him in more detail about life in his quartet.
David: I think we did get along fairly well when we were young. We learned how to play together (not music!), and disagree with each other, and still get along at the end of the day. These are skills we continue to use every day in our quartet. Our parents definitely raised us as a close family, and I'm sure that has helped us to be able to work together successfully. Interestingly, we did not play music often together as kids, since our age difference seemed much larger in those days than it does now, and also because we were lucky enough to have many friends our own ages who enjoyed playing music, making it pretty easy to find chamber music partners who we were not related to!
Caeli: Did you all go to the same conservatory?
David: We went to different schools at first, some to the Eastman School of Music and, some to Juilliard, and Phil was even an economics major at Harvard. But eventually we all went to the Eastman School of Music at the same time, which was when we began playing together. It didn't hurt that the quartet in residence at the time was the Cleveland Quartet, who in addition to being an amazing quartet were our teachers and mentors.
Caeli: What are your individual personalities like, music-wise, and how do they fit together?
David: Wow! This is a tough question. Maybe you should ask our parents. Well, I'll give it a try. Our personalities as musicians, and as people, are pretty different, as you'd probably find in any family. So there's plenty of disagreement in any of our rehearsals. Sometimes I wonder how we ever get it together in the end! But I think when all is said and done, differences are good in a quartet- they make chemistry, and the combination of ideas, feelings, personalities always seems better than anything I would have done on my own. So the trick is just to make sure you complement each other, and try to be neither carbon copies nor musical enemies of each other.
Caeli: What's it like to be in business together as adults?
David: Funny enough, the few times that we played music together in public as kids, there was money involved. The five of us had a standing job playing for the Northwestern School of Education's commencement each June. We got pretty expert at stringing out—no pun intended— Pomp and Circumstance for as long as we needed it. So now, we're just doing that a lot more often (and we've expanded our repertoire too!). Sometimes music doesn't really seem like a job, we get so much enjoyment from it, and mostly we're just trying to bring that same enjoyment to others, whether by performing or teaching. But sometimes it is definitely a job, and one we have to accomplish together, no less. We try hard to balance our professional demands with our personal family lives, which of course involve more than just us siblings.
Caeli: When my quartet, which is two pairs of siblings, talked to you at Fischoff, you pointed out that sometimes we play as though we know one another too well. This was an amazing comment to hear, and I'd like to know if you can elaborate and tell us if you struggled with that issue as a quartet, and if so how you deal with it?
David: Yes, it is something that we've talked about. Sometimes we've thought that things came together too easily, and that because of our common backgrounds and instruction that we didn't let the music struggle enough. It doesn't seem to be a problem now though. Some days it seems like we can discuss different ways of doing the tiniest musical detail for hours. It can be good in rehearsal to not necessarily anticipate how someone is going to play, or to play the way you usually do too. Anything in life that gets so comfortable that you take it for granted is going to lose its meaning and importance on some level. And I know that's not something I would want to do with playing music.
Caeli: The four of you are now in residency at Eastman. How do you manage your teaching schedules with working together in the quartet?
David: Being resident ensemble and on the faculty at Eastman is an extremely important part of our lives. It is our home base in many ways. Working with the talented students at Eastman is very enriching, and grounding. We have to practice what we preach, and vice versa. I have benefited from wonderful teaching myself, and I find it very satisfying to pass along what I've been privileged to receive. Plus, having a teaching position makes sure that we have time for our families too, so that we don't have the pressure of doing all of work away from home. We never travel for more than a week at a time, so that we can see our families and our students as much as possible.
Caeli: Do you collaborate with your wife [pianist Elinor Freer]? How is it different playing with her than it is with your siblings?
David: I do play with Elinor whenever we get the chance, and I enjoy it very much! Music is such a wonderful thing to share with someone else, no matter if they are related to you or not. I can't imagine another activity that involves so much interaction with another person, so for me it's natural to want to play music with my wife, family and friends. I don't really find it that different, in the end, to play with anyone, as long as we are enjoying the interaction.
Caeli: Do you have any kids yourself?
David: My wife and I have a one-year-old daughter, and Tim has two children: a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. They are the best!
Caeli: I can imagine that both Ying generations will be playing chamber music together one day.
David: The quartet kids so far are a little young to be playing instruments, but I certainly hope that my daughter grows up to enjoy music, and I hope she would want to play something too! I also hope that someday sitting down to play music with each other and for ourselves (for fun only!) is something we'd all naturally do.
Caeli: What projects have you been doing recently? Anything exciting coming up in the future?
David: Recording has occupied a lot of our time lately, and we're excited about it since we'd kind of avoided it for many years. This spring we released two recordings- the Tchaikovsky String Quartets and the Souvenir de Florence (with our former teachers James Dunham and Paul Katz) on Telarc, and the second installment of our LifeMusic commissions, titled United States: LifeMusic 2 on Quartz. We have been commissioning these pieces for string quartet that reflect contemporary American life for some years now, and we're continuing with that ongoing project. We've been fortunate to work with so many wonderful, creative composers- there's no feeling like the excitement of discovering a work that's just been written, for little old us, even! We also just finished recording several small works by Chinese-American composers for Telarc, that will be released sometime in the future. We call that project a "musical dim-sum."
Caeli: I know you're in residency for the first half of summer at Bowdoin International Music Festival. How did you choose Bowdoin? Are you at any other festivals during the summer?
David: We enjoy Bowdoin because there are many fantastic students from a very wide variety of backgrounds, and because chamber music is a central activity there. It's pretty interesting to work with a quartet, for example, made up of four players from completely differing cultures, types of training, and personalities. And to see some students who are highly experienced in chamber music- some far more than I was at their age- and then the next hour to be helping young students who might be playing in one of their first chamber music groups ever. We also teach at Aspen Music Festival, as well as make brief playing appearances at several other festivals. My wife and I also direct the Skaneateles Festival, where I can always count on a visit from a certain string quartet that looks like me!
Every summer, countless American youth orchestras, choirs, and bands embark on international concert tours designed to give young musicians some exposure to the world outside their own comfort zone, and for the musicians themselves to act as ambassadors for our own musical culture. Dozens of my own friends have gone on tour with their youth orchestras, and I've heard how exciting it is to travel and play together in foreign cities. So, this fall, when I learned that the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra would be touring Brazil in early July, I was dying to go. I'm particularly interested in Brazilian music and culture, having studied capoeira for several years. And who would pass up the opportunity for a music-filled trip to of the most exciting countries in the world with fifty of their best friends?
But my parents said that orchestra tour would be expensive and that I wouldn't get that much out of it because intensive orchestral playing wouldn't be good for my technique. Finally they agreed to let me go—reluctantly—after I proposed to pay for the trip out of my own savings. I was thrilled. Ours was to be a fairly intensive tour—seven concerts in eleven days, playing quite a bit of new repertoire from our regular season. To prepare us, our conductor, Maestro Louis Scaglione, called for a month of intensive rehearsals, as much as six hours a day on weekends, after our regular performance season ended.
Like most youth orchestras, we're a little spoiled because our usual audiences are predisposed to love us unconditionally. Our farewell concert in Philadelphia's swanky Union League was packed with the usual mix of parents, grandparents, board members and friends. Under the baton of Maestro Scaglione, we performed one of the several programs we would use on tour: the overture to Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito, Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with our concertmaster Francesca dePasquale as soloist. We got our usual standing ovation, and felt pretty good about the performance. Our conductor and chaperones assured us that the Brazilian audiences were going to love us, too. But I had to wonder what kind of reception would we get from a hall filled with total strangers.
We flew as group, directly from Dulles Airport in D.C. to the now-infamous Sao Paulo airport. Because we were on a commercial flight, there was no crating for the instruments, so the cellos and basses were placed in the hold, in flight bags, along with the rest of the luggage. This caused some anxiety, particularly among the cellists who are used to bringing their instruments on board and buckling them into seat belts. We small instrumentalists felt lucky to be able to carry our instruments into the cabin with us. When we landed, we learned the cello belonging to my friend Genevieve Tabby was missing. It had traveled on its own to Rio de Janeiro!
Fortunately, the errant cello was soon located and returned to our hotel in the wee hours of the next morning, just in time for Genevieve to perform with the rest of her section in the first concert of our tour, in the Teatro Municipal of the city of São José dos Campos.
That first concert in Brazil turned out to be one of the most exciting nights of my life! The venue itself seemed rather strange to us at first, from a cultural perspective. Instead of being in a fancy concert hall with wooden and red velvet chairs, the auditorium was situated in a shopping mall. The hall itself looked like a movie theater, with big, comfortable reclining seats.
During our performance, the audience behaved more casually than audiences at home. Although they were attentive, they seemed more physically relaxed than the audiences we are used to. They behaved as if they were watching a movie or a spectacle, rather than somberly partaking of classical music. They tended to clap between movements and express their appreciation without reserve—which didn't bother me a bit. At the end they leapt to their feet and cheered. My friends and I looked around at each other across the stage, amazed and delighted that they liked our performance so much! We are used to playing for audiences who are pre-disposed to liking us -- our parents and friends – yet no audience had ever reacted this warmly to our playing.
The next day, after some sightseeing, we boarded our busses for a trip to the city of Santos where we gave an evening performance at the Teatro Coliseu. While we were warming up in the girls' dressing room backstage, my friend and fellow violinist Charlotte Nicholas noticed a strange, burning smell. We looked up and saw smoke rising from my brand-new BAM High-Tech violin case. I snatched the case away from the vanity lamps by the mirror, but it was too late. A huge and very odd-looking hole had burned its way into the exterior of my case!
This concert had a younger audience than the first, and a group of adolescent boys in the first few rows kept pointing at the girls in the orchestra and whispering and laughing as we played. We weren't sure what to make of their behavior, but after the concert we found them waiting at the stage door where our buses were parked. They kept pointing to names on the printed program and trying to match us with our names. They were quite friendly and we attempted to hold a conversation with them, but since our Portuguese was even worse than their English, we all ended up laughing.
The second violin section in rehearsal.
Photo credit: Jared Cartwright.
The next day, we gave a late-morning performance at the Teatro Cultura Artistica in Sao Paulo. This was our concertmaster Francesca's final solo with the full Tchaikovsky. (She would play the first movement at our last concert at the Samba School.) We were so proud of her for performing the entire concerto four times in such a short span. She's an amazing technical player with great stamina and clear musical ideas.
It was night when we checked into our hotel in Rio after a six-hour bus trip. In the dark, the stately Hotel Gloria with its big, dark rooms seemed creepy. Our first hotel had been modern and shiny, but Hotel Gloria , a faded old beauty, was classy. It was the biggest hotel I've ever seen– there was a heliport on the roof, and enough room for the entire
orchestra and our chaperones to be distributed throughout only two floors. In the bright light of morning, our rooms seemed much less intimidating, and we ran through the halls to each others' rooms, excited for the great day that we had planned. By now our chaperones were undoubtedly weary, but we were as rambunctious as ever, just getting our second wind!
Later that day we made our way to the Copacabana beach (what's a trip to Rio without a visit to Copacabana?) We spent the afternoon away from our instruments, frolicking in the surf, enjoying the beautiful scenery, and dodging the hang gliders landing from their flight off a nearby mountain.
Caeli: Speaking of music festivals, where are you playing in the near future?
Nick: Wabash, Indiana. The Grand Teton Festival. The Utah Sympony. The Chatauqua Festival, the Ocean City Pops.
Zach: We played 130 dates across the country this year.
Nick: In 31 states. So it's hard to keep track. But there's a list of upcoming dates on our website.
Zach: Next January we'll be premiering a new concerto by composer Jennifer Higdon with Philadelphia Orchestra.
Ranaan: And this summer we're spending a lot of time away from the road, writing and working together. We're thirsty for new creative outlets.
Caeli: Can you give us a little hint about what new material you're working on?
Ranaan: We just completed new arrangement of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah".
Nick: It's a song that's been covered by Jeff Buckley, kd lang.
Caeli: Rufus Wainwright sings it in Shrek!
Nick: That's the one!
Caeli: How do you manage rehearsing while you're on the road?
Nick: When we travel, we're in a different city every day, and we get there mostly by car. We can't do too much rehearsing, not much more than 45 minutes a day, because the schedule we keep is so rigorous. That's why this summer is dedicated to rekindling creative energy.
Caeli: Will it be difficult with Zach moving to Indiana?
Nick: Crafting a schedule is a carefully coordinated effort. Some rehearsal will be in Indiana, some in Philly, where Zach still keeps a home.
Ranaan: It will be very moveable. We'll be creative and we'll make it work.
Caeli: Speaking of making it work: you guys spend an awful lot of time together, and in close quarters—traveling in a car. You're in a car right now, in fact. Do you ever get on one another's nerves?
Nick (to Ranaan): Shut up dude!
Ranaan: Why are you being so dominant in this interview, Nick?!
Zach: Guys! Don't fight!
Nick: The three of us are so close, we're brothers. Being on the road isn't reality, really. It's an artificial world. It's hard to be around anybody that much. Sometimes we argue or disagree, and need to get away from each other. But at the end of the day we know that this is how a team works.
Zach: Knowing how to work together and grow together—that's the most important thing we do.
Violinist Elena Urioste is going places -- literally! Next week she's going to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; last week it was the Boston Pops; and then the Atlanta Symphony in late July and the Detroit Symphony in August. And that's just for starters, thanks to her winning First Place in the Senior Division of this year's Sphinx Competition in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sphinx, which was founded in 1997, is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting young black and Latino classical musicians.
As an eleventh grader, Elena, who is of Mexican and Basque descent, was First Prize Laureate in the Junior Division; shortly after, she entered Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music one year early. Now 21, Elena is poised at the beginning of a great career. I caught up with her for an interview after her orchestra rehearsal one beautiful spring evening in Philadelphia.
Caeli: Tell us a little about your involvement with the competition.
Elena: I was first introduced to Sphinx when I won the Junior Division back in 2003, and I've maintained close contact with them ever since. I had a lot of performance opportunities as a result, and I was invited to participate in two of their gala concerts.
The competition itself is such a positive, nurturing environment. You stay in a hotel in Ann Arbor with all the other kids, and at the opening dinner we all introduce ourselves. Everyone's so supportive, not like at some competitions when we're all looking out only for ourselves. The members of the Sphinx Symphony who mentor us are so warm and caring. It's a fabulous experience! One thing I can say, though -- they're very big on punctuality. You have to be at meals and gatherings on time.
Caeli: I've heard that Sphinx does a lot of cultural outreach.
Elena: Cultural leadership is a gigantic part of Sphinx and I can't express how much I love doing this. The best part is bringing classical music to people who wouldn't be exposed to it otherwise. We might do as many as five school outreach sessions in a day. It's fantastic! You might think the kids were going to be bored or restless, but I have had nothing but positive experiences at these sessions. They are my favorite memories from my Sphinx affiliations.
For example, in Baltimore -- I remember it so clearly -- we were visiting a dilapidated elementary school in a challenged neighborhood and I asked my usual, "How many kids here play an instrument?" A little girl about seven or eight years old raised her hand and said, "I used to play violin but I don't anymore." She was very attentive during the session, and at the end she came up and threw her arms around me. She said, "I'm going to ask my mom if I can play the violin again!"
Elena: I'm aware that, when I solo with a symphony, the regular concertgoers are already familiar with the Tchaikovsky concerto and they're just coming to check out the new kid -- me. I'm not changing anything in their lives at that moment. But if I can make a real difference in one child's life, that's more important than any big concert I might do.
Caeli: You're living every young musician's dream -- winning national competitions and soloing with major orchestras. And entering Curtis at a young age. Tell us about your experience there.
Elena: I'm from Philadelphia, so I grew up going to concerts at Curtis, hearing those amazing musicians and knowing deep down that's where I wanted to go. But being here has more than exceeded my expectations. It's the most loving, nurturing environment. It's like a family. Which can be irritating -- everyone knows everyone else's business! But I love going to a small school.
My primary teacher, Joseph Silverstein, has more than fulfilled my expectations. Musically, he's a god. He's totally my idol and it's surreal to hear him play, he's such a master. And amazingly, he's gotten to know me as a person, we have such a solid relationship. I never expected that. I've also learned so much from guest artists, from my orchestra and chamber experiences, and from the other students. I have to say, it's very humbling to be around so many talented students.
When I first arrived, I remember sitting down in the last chair of the second violins -- I had never actually played in symphonic orchestra before. Everyone else knew so much, intellectually and musically. I was terrified of the conductor. I knew I would have to work my butt off and soak up what everyone has to offer.
It's hard work -- but it's not all work. For example, today no one wanted to be inside practicing because the weather finally warmed up and it was so beautiful. So most of us spent the whole day in Rittenhouse Square lying on the grass in the sun and eating stuff! We know how to have fun.
Caeli: Tell me, do you still eat bananas to calm your nerves?
Elena: I'll tell you a secret. I've never liked bananas. So I've stopped doing that. Now before a big audition or concert I try and have a routine: practice in the morning, take a big nap, work out, shower, and get ready. I've learned that it's best to try not to stray too far from what I'd do on an ordinary day. I used to get all fixated on doing everything perfectly on the day of a big performance. You know, "the PERFECT shower"! Now I tell myself that, yes, the concert day is a special day, but if I convince myself it's just a regular day I don't psyche myself out as much. I don't go to bed at 9 PM the night before because I won't be able to sleep anyway. I've learned that the nerves will kick in all by themselves. I have considerable nerves, always have, and they're not going anywhere, so I've come to terms with that. I just deal with it.
Caeli: Sounds like you've been dealing pretty well, even without bananas.
Elena: Life is exciting now! I'm starting to be on the edge of big stuff.