Ying Quartet makes a connection
"Curated by" is a limber credit these days. It can denote anything from years of scholarly work on a museum exhibition to creating cocktails, videos, and the music playlist for a nightclub party.
MIT Media Lab professor and composer Tod Machover ran the gamut in curating the Ying Quartet's performances at the Institute of Contemporary Art on Friday night.
About three years ago, the Ying siblings commissioned a composition from Machover. When he delivered ". . . but not simpler . . .," they asked him to suggest complementary pieces to make an evening of music. Machover delivered a playlist of works that influenced him, by composers ranging from J.S. Bach to Elliott Carter to Lennon and McCartney. He also produced a series of electronic interludes to connect them all, creating a single unbroken performance.
The program, also titled ". . . but not simpler . . .," made its Boston debut Friday night. The blackout curtains were drawn over the glass walls of the ICA's theater for the occasion, making possible lighting effects and projections featuring comments about each work on a screen behind the group. The 8 p.m. show sold out, and though there were some empty seats for the late-added 6 p.m. performance, the definite sense of a happening was in the air.
Certainly the Ying Quartet -- violinists Timothy and Janet, with Phillip on viola and David on cello -- delivered. From the embracing first movement of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 16 in F Major (Op. 135) to the unsettling harmonics of Carter's Fragment No. 1, their sound had a wholeness that's perhaps too easy to attribute to their family tie. This unity helped hold together late 20th-century pieces that seem designed to fly apart, including an electronically enhanced version of the Beatles' "A Day in the Life." (David Ying seemed to relish plucking out Machover's homage to Paul McCartney's bass playing.)
In voluminous program notes, Machover describes his own composition as a tribute to his mentor Carter. Like the evening as a whole, it's intended to express the search for serenity and balance in our complex, speedy, and fragmented world. The Yings executed passages of momentum and calm with equal grace, as the sound was moved electronically about the space.
The test of this kind of program is whether the music makes a collective impact on patrons who've not had every segue explained to them. This did so. In fact, it did so well enough that the projected text should be limited to composer and title, omitting the background material, which belongs in the printed program. Machover including a line from "T. Machover" among the other authorities quoted on the screen was a bit much.
But that's a quibble about a quite affecting evening. The program closed, after an hour, with the last movement of the same Beethoven quartet that began it. As Machover and the Yings absorbed the applause, the blackout curtains rose, revealing a harbor panorama that had, by that time, been forgotten.