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Timothy Ying plays the violin, as does his younger sister, Janet. A second brother, Philip, plays the viola and a third, David, plays cello. Yet amazingly enough they never performed together until they tried it in school.

That was at the Eastman School of Music. And thus was born the Ying String Quartet, returning to Utah for three concerts this week - at 8 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 29, at the Museum of Fine Arts on the University of Utah campus; at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 1, at Brigham Young University's Harris Fine Arts Center; and at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 2, at Utah State University's Eccles Conference Center."Obviously it had occurred to us that we had the correct instruments for a string quartet," recalls David Ying of his and his siblings' childhood in suburban Winetka, Ill. "But I thought it was more fun to play with my friends than with my family."

Certainly, he says, his Chinese-American parents never intended their offspring to end up as a string quartet. (A fifth brother, Daniel, plays the bass.)

"I think their philosophy was that music lessons were a good way to keep us out of trouble, so we did that along with sports and other activities." In addition to which, he adds, "good grades were always a priority."

The four weren't even headed in the same direction when they converged at Eastman. "Here Tim and I were in graduate school, Phil was taking a leave of absence from an economics degree and Jan was just out of high school. But we thought, well, maybe we'll rehearse once a week and see if we don't kill each other in the process."

One gathers the chemistry was immediate, for they soon found themselves being coached by the Cleveland Quartet, then in residence at Eastman. In 1989 they won the school's Cleveland Quartet Competition. Three years later they took second in the Banff International String Quartet Competition, and in 1993 they received the Naumburg Chamber Music Award.

Still, one likewise gathers that it wasn't easy, much less automatic.

"I think one of the biggest advantages we've had playing togther as a family is a built-in sense of loyalty and trust," David says. "From my observation, that seems to be one of the hardest things to develop in a quartet, but also one of the most important. And it ranges from depending on the other three to make a career together to the actual musical execution.

"On the other hand, I think as a family it's possible to take the relationship for granted, so that maybe you're not as polite and civil as you would be to other people outside the family. I think we're used to it - if another person is out of tune, we'll just tell them they're out of tune - and so far we haven't resorted to physical violence. But to another string quartet player, it may seem as though we're being quite frank."

His younger brother Philip agrees.

"It's interesting that, though we could learn all kinds of things from such groups as the Cleveland, Emerson and Tokyo quartets, none of them has been able to give us advice as to how to get along with siblings, both professionally and personally.

"I remember one summer we all shared a condominium at Aspen and the members of the Emerson Quartet would come over to coach us, and the first thing each of them would do is look around in disbelief and ask, `Do you all really live here together?'

"Since then, we've been gradually learning how to give each other more space and create more independence. But the process of learning to regard one another as professional colleagues and not just as older brothers or a younger sister has been a challenge."

That's one reason they've all relocated to Manhattan following a unique two-year residency in the small Iowa farm community of Jesup, which, under the sponsorship of the National Endowment for the Arts, ran from 1992 to 1994.

"That was a very healthy thing," David Ying observes of the Jesup sojourn, "because our life these days is almost exclusively involved with touring and you miss out on the satisfaction of being, as a musician, an integral part of the community.

"But New York makes it a little easier to `escape' from one another. At least I can't think of many places where you can live in the same city and still remain sort of anonymous."

The result, he says, is that when the group isn't on the road, "we tend to see each other at rehearsals and that's about it." Nonetheless, he adds, "it's interesting to note that we get along better when we don't have our instruments in our hands. We seem to have our strongest differences and most passionate viewpoints when the music's the issue."

The music for this week's appearances will be drawn from a fairly basic palette. For both the Salt Lake and Provo concerts, the Yings will perform quartets of Mendelssohn (his Op. 13) Brahms (his Op. 67) and Bartok (the Quartet No. 3). For Logan the mix will be more Russian-oriented: Beethoven's Op. 59, No. 2 - the second of his "Razumovsky" Quartets - and the Second Quartets of Borodin and Prokofiev.

Tickets for the Salt Lake concert, sponsored by the Chamber Music Society of Salt Lake City, are $15 ($5 students); for information call 561-3999. At BYU they are $9 ($7 students, faculty and staff, $8 alumni and senior citizens) at the fine arts ticket office (378-4322). USU tickets are $13 ($5 students) at the Smith Spectrum and Taggart Student Center.

In conjuction with their BYU appearance, the quartet will also conduct a free seminar Friday at 10 a.m. in the de Jong Concert Hall. Similarly the following day they will preside over an hourlong workshop for Logan High School orchestra students beginning at 1 p.m.