Music of the heart

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Amber Quartet members (from left) Ning Fangliang, Su Yajing, Qi Wang and Yang Yichen. [Photo/China Daily]

"If music be the food of love, play on" is the oft-quoted opening line from Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night. But real life is no laughing matter, especially for young couples who find their heartstrings being pulled. The music of love provided a romantic score for this young couple as well as a convenient disguise to meet without suspicion.

In 2005, Yang Yichen, a then-17-year-old student learning cello at the affiliated high school of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, fell in love with his schoolmate, Ning Fangliang, then 18, who studied violin. To have a decent excuse to spend time with Ning, Yang initiated the idea of founding a quartet, which enabled him to do rehearsals and performances with his dream girl.

Yang, now 32, is going to celebrate 10 years of marriage next year to Ning, 33, who gave birth to their son two years ago.

Before that, they have another important anniversary to celebrate together with the musicians who provided the soundtrack to their romance. Along with violinist Su Yajing and violist Qi Wang, they will celebrate the 15th anniversary of their Amber Quartet, with two concerts on Nov 20 and Dec 20 at the National Library Arts Center in Beijing.

All of the members of the Amber Quartet are now teachers at the Central Conservatory of Music.

"Last year, when my husband told me about his idea of celebrating the quartet's 15th anniversary, I was surprised," says Ning from Xuzhou, Jiangsu province, who learned to play violin at 4. "Time goes by so fast! I didn't realize it had been such a long time." 

Amber Quartet [Photo provided to China Daily]

Ning's parents, despite no musical training of their own, wanted her to study a musical instrument. Their first choice was keyboard, but the class was full, so she chose instead to learn violin and soon displayed a natural talent for the instrument. At 14, she enrolled in the high school affiliated to the Central Conservatory of Music.

To Ning, being in a quartet is like "being in a four-person marriage, which means endless arguments and adjustments". But she is quick to add that "the process is enduring and challenging, but also fun and rewarding".

"When we play together, it's neither about producing louder music nor just about one person showing off his or her techniques. It's about communication, not competition. We search for the perfect sound that we can make as one person."

The quartet concert on Nov 20 will feature six music pieces, which "are meaningful to the members of the quartet", as Yang says, including Mozart's String Quartet No 17 in B-flat major, K 458, nicknamed The Hunt, Debussy's String Quartet in G minor, Op 10, Mendelssohn's String Quartet No 6, Op 80, and The Dream of the Red Chamber Capriccio by Chinese composer Wang Liping.

"These works have accompanied the quartet from the very beginning. We learned to play as a quartet thanks to those pieces," says Yang who, during the concert, will introduce each piece and share personal stories about how it relates to the quartet.

"When the Amber Quartet was born, there were hundreds of quartets formed by fellow students at our school," he adds. "But now, only we are still playing together. We feel proud."

In the concert on Dec 20, the quartet will perform music pieces by Beethoven, marking the 250th anniversary of the German composer's birth. Programs will include String Quartet No 1 in F major, Op 18, String Quartet No 8 in E minor, Op 59, No 2 and String Quartet in F major, Op 135.

Beethoven composed 16 string quartets. "We chose to play the string quartet pieces the composer wrote in the final years of his life, which are like the last words he wanted to say to the world," says Ning. The String Quartet in F major, Op 135, which was the last complete work Beethoven composed, only a few months before his death in March 1827, "exposed his emotions to us in a very profound way that words could never express".

In early 2013, the Amber Quartet was honored as the first chamber music group to receive funding from the government for overseas studies - the group was accepted to study for two years at the Institute International de Musica de Camara de Madrid in Spain, with mentoring guidance by established musicians, such as Guenter Pichler from the Alban Berg Quartet.

Amber Quartet [Photo provided to China Daily]

That same year, the quartet won three awards at the Asia-Pacific Chamber Music Competition in Melbourne: the Grand Prize, the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Prize, and the Hamer-Tribe Trust Prize. It was the first Chinese quartet to win a string of three prizes at an international chamber music competition.

They have won critical acclaim from international media and reviewers. "Their performance involved hitting and slapping their fingerboard, as well as the unusual technique of bowing between the hand and the scroll which produced a haunting sound," according to ABC Classic FM's review on their performance during the competition in Melbourne.

"What I thoroughly enjoyed about their performance was the spaciousness that they found in Totem," said Zoe Knighton, guest commentator and cellist with the Flinders Quartet, in an interview with ABC Classic FM, referring to the string quartet work by Chinese composer Zhang Zhao, who spent two years observing and researching local ethnic folk music in his native Yunnan province.

The quartet has toured more than 30 countries and to share and spread their love for classic music among the general public, they are devoted to giving concerts that combine live performances with introductions to, and anecdotes about, the history of classical music and musicians.

They just attended an international music festival held at the Sichuan Conservatory of Music and performed twice in Chengdu on Nov 4 and 5. After that, they played in Wuhan, Hubei province, where they performed a sold-out concert on Nov 8. Their performances have been well-received by Chinese music lovers. A fan that attended their concert in Wuhan, wrote on Sina Weibo: "It was the first time that I ever watched a performance by a string quartet, which was impressive. It was a great pleasure to meet the musicians."

Yang, who was born and raised in Beijing, has been playing the cello since he was 8. At 14, he was already a promising cellist when he first performed with a symphony orchestra in Xiamen, Fujian province, under the baton of China's first female conductor, Zheng Xiaoying.

For many Chinese music prodigies of his generation, standing out as a great soloist is the long-held wish of his parents, teachers and the young musicians themselves. But musicians of the quartet cherish their time together. Yang says: "I am happy to have the other three musicians as my lifelong friends. We share the same career goal of playing as a team, instead of doing solo performances."

He says that chamber music as a music genre is not that mature but "is still growing" in the country. The positive side is that they have noticed that "more talented young people are becoming interested in chamber music", says Yang, adding that the four of them love to share their ideas about, and passion for, chamber music with their students.

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