Though not proofed against street noise or internal off-stage distractions, the courtyard of the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena proved an evocative, engaging concert space for the Shanghai String Quartet Sunday evening. Performing for Chamber Music in Historic Sites, the young ensemble played a well-constructed program with vigor and elan.
At the center of the agenda was the "Song of the Ch'in" by Zhou Long and Bartok's Third Quartet. Though literally a world apart in mood and expressive focus, both works employ many of the same compositional and technical tricks, making a very effective pairing.
"Song of the Ch'in" is an episodic, atmospheric piece that re-creates sounds of the ch'in , a Chinese type of zither. In doing so, the composer reveals a sure understanding of the string quartet as a single entity. The ensemble--violinists Wei Gang Li and Hong Gang Li, violist Zheng Wang and cellist Kathe Jarka--met all the colorful demands with confident, integrated playing.
Their Bartok alternated between fire and ice, in a taut, purposeful account. The Shanghai violins are slender-toned and sweet in contrast to the big, dark sounds of the viola and cello, which left some passages unbalanced. But the cumulative effect was one of convincing intelligence.
The concert began with a light flight through Haydn's currently fashionable "Lark" Quartet. At the end of the printed program came Brahm's C-minor Quartet, Opus 51, No. 1, in an initially generic reading troubled by more than just Jarka's loose string, which she retuned while the others continued playing. It peaked into an individual statement in the Allegretto, though, and continued with fiendish brio in the finale.
The group came back for one encore, the folk song "The Chinese Girl," in an arrangement that sounded like pure Dvorak.