The Ying Quartet to play at Spanos Theatre

Group will perform three pieces by Beethoven on Saturday

slinn@thetribunenews.comOctober 16, 2013 

From left, Phillip Ying, Janet Ying, Ayano Ninomiya and David Ying.


Even by string quartet standards, the members of the Ying Quartet enjoy a close relationship.

The group’s current lineup consists of three siblings — violinist Janet Ying, violist Phillip Ying and cellist David Ying — and one nonfamily member, violinist Ayano Ninomiya.

“It’s been an amazing experience to be with people that I trust so much, with people that I respect professionally,” Phillip Ying said.

Because of those family bonds, he added, “I think we’re close in a way that maybe goes beyond other string quartet colleagues.”

The Ying Quartet will share that intimate connection with audiences Saturday at the Performing Arts Center, when it presents the fourth of the six concerts in the Beethoven Cycle series. They’ll perform three pieces by classical composer Ludwig van Beethoven: “Quartet in A Major, Op. 18, No. 5,” “Quartet in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2” and “Quartet in E-Flat Major, Op. 127.”

“Music doesn’t get any better than this,” Ying said.

Independent pursuits

Music education was an integral part of childhood for Phillip Ying and his siblings, who grew up in an affluent Chicago suburb.

Their parents were always “asking us, ordering us, cajoling us to either take piano or violin,” he said.

Although the Ying children enjoyed some success in high school, “My parents had no idea we would take it so seriously,” he recalled, adding that his youngest sibling, Janet Ying, was the first sibling to pursue a musical career. “One by one, we decided we could make our living at being a professional musician.”

While studying music at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music in New York, the Yings formed a string quartet at the encouragement of the Cleveland Quartet. (They currently serve as quartet-in-residence at the Eastman School.)

Remarkably, the siblings played together 18 years before violinist Timothy Ying left the Ying Quartet in 2009 to pursue other opportunities. His permanent replacement, Ninomiya, arrived in 2010.

Phillip Ying said the violinist brought a new musical perspective to the group.

“She brings a freshness to each of us individually,” he said, forcing Ying Quartet members to reevaluate how they approach each work. “The opportunity to question everything you might have assumed about the musical aspects of the piece is very refreshing.”

Ying said the musicians must also work to avoid interpersonal friction — a common problem for any long-term string quartet.

“Siblings or no, you’re going to have friction. Otherwise you’re not normal,” the violist said.

“It’s respect for the music itself that gets you beyond any squabbles,” he said. “You owe it to the composer … and the audience to find a fresh take on this to illuminate all its masterful touches, all the ways in which it’s an incredible and timeless piece of art.”

Crossing boundaries

Ying said the Ying Quartet’s “vision of what a string quartet can be” was shaped in part by its two-year stint in the early 1990s as the resident quartet of Jesup, Iowa. Many of the 2,000 or so people living in the farm town “had never listened to a live string quartet before,” he recalled.

Since then, Ying explained, “We’ve been really passionate about doing projects that cross stylistic boundaries, that engage other art forms … that put music in different contexts so that audiences can understand the power of music in and of itself.”

Those projects have brought them in contact with actors, dancers, poets and artists — even a Chinese chef who hand-pulled noodles onstage.

They’ve also teamed up with the genre-defying Turtle Island String Quartet — winning a Grammy Award for their collaborative album “Four + 4” — and worked with composer Tod Machover and the MIT Media Lab on Hyperscore, a software tool that helps people compose music.

Their ongoing LifeMusic project, launched in 1999, finds the quartet commissioning new works from established and emerging American composers from all musical backgrounds. Each is asked to write a piece of music that is inspired by some aspect of the American experience.

“That just opens the door to imagination,” he said, “and affirms what we all have in common, whether we’re in a formal concert hall or a community center or a senior home or a classroom.”

The results have ranged from “Dark Vigil of Youth,” Kevin Puts’ powerful response to the 1999 Columbine High School shooting in Colorado, to “Icefield Sonnets,” Pierre Jalbert’s ode to frigid North Dakota winters. The quartet also commissioned “Three Rags for String Quartet” from pianist John Novacek, a frequent Festival Mozaic participant known for combining chamber music and ragtime.

“We’ve been so privileged to experience connecting audiences,” Ying said, adding that the quartet will premiere a haunting, passionate piece next month by Russian-American pianist Lera Auerbach.

In addition to packed tour and teaching schedules, the Ying Quartet enjoys a busy recording career.

Most recently, they teamed up with pianist Adam Neiman for two recordings: a 2011 album of Anton Arensky works and “American Anthem: The Music of Samuel Barber and Howard Hanson,” which came out in March.

They’re currently working on an album featuring three quartets by Robert Schumann, due to be released next spring.

Asked how the Ying Quartet balances all those responsibilities, Ying said, simply, “We do it because we love the music.”


The Ying Quartet
8 p.m. Saturday
Spanos Theatre, Cal Poly
$38.40 to $47
756-4849 or

Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907. Stay updated by following @shelikestowatch on Twitter.

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