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YCA showcases the artistry of young violist Ziyu Shen

Written By | Apr 27, 2016

WASHINGTON, April 22, 2016 – We’ve said many times in our columns here and elsewhere that the New York-based Young Concert Artists (YCA) series has developed the excellent habit of discovering brilliant young musicians from around the world, then showcasing them in recitals here, in New York and elsewhere, providing them with a valuable opportunity to get their careers off the ground.

The latest artist to appear in the YCA’s DC edition at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater was youthful Chinese violist Ziyu Shen. Not yet twenty, Ms. Shen—ably accompanied by pianist Jessica Osborne—tackled an eclectic and challenging program that included a pair of works by Brahms, short excerpts from Prokoviev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” as arranged for viola by Vadim Borisovksy, an unusual Asian piece Qingwu Guan, and the massive but still relatively unknown Sonata for Viola and piano by the late English composer Rebecca Clarke.

For us, at least, the Rebecca Clarke sonata was the centerpiece of this program. Composed in 1918-1919 by Clarke, then in her mid-30s, it was entered in a chamber music contest. Given the times, Clarke was shrewd enough to enter it under a male pseudonym, and it nearly won the prize, which was actually awarded to well-known composer Ernest Bloch as one might expect of such things. Judges were later shocked to discover that the runner-up work by “Anthony Trent” turned out to have been composed by a young Englishwoman.

Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, the near win for Clarke’s sonata was pretty much the high point of a lost career. She moved to America for a time, but then ended up trapped on these shores by the outbreak of the Second World War, forced to piece together a living as an au pair during the war. She eventually marked a Juilliard professor. But by that time, any chance of a career had faded.

Clarke died in New York City in 1979. It was around that time that her nearly prize-winning sonata—never entirely off the map for violists—began to reappear in recital programs. Interestingly enough, the first time we ever heard this sonata or even heard of it was in an earlier YCA viola recital program back in the early 2000s. It’s an astounding piece, and listeners hearing it for the first time invariably sit up and take notice.

A surprising mix of very late Romanticism and a surging, edgy variety of impressionism, the sonata launches boldly and ends with great majesty, with both extremes balanced by a fast-paced, technically challenging central movement marked “Vivace.”

That Ms. Shen chose to include it on a program that already included plenty of Brahms amply demonstrates that even in her late teens, this young artist is already brimming with a well-earned sense of confidence underscored by near flawless technique. Her performance was alternately exciting in the opening “Impetuoso” and playful in that fast-paced intermezzo before she returned to the final movement, a broad, dramatic and unusual Adagio.

The central portion of Ms. Shen’s program consisted of a pair of works that proved somewhat lighter in texture, including the excerpts from Prokofiev’s memorable ballet, “Romeo and Juliet” and a driving, almost hyperkinetic selection from Qingwu Guan’s book of “Mongolian Folk Songs.”

The “Romeo and Juliet” adaptations, selected from the ballet’s introductory moments and from a later confrontation between the Montagues and Capulets offered the violist a chance to interpret Prokofiev’s tight-wire Romantic-modernist excursions, as romantic interludes were interrupted by discordant and acid-tipped scenes of strife, both of which Ms. Shen attacked with considerable vigor.

The “Mongolian Folk Song” excerpt on the other hand, seemed to be an old favorite of Ms. Shen, with its vivid, galloping homage to the Mongolian horse and rider of old crackled with energy which took on a new and pleasant urgency under the fierce joy of this young violist’s enthusiasm. Challenges here included a constant, ostinato-like repeating figure and occasional glissandi, which we don’t often hear in western string music.

The recital began and ended with a pair of works by Johannes Brahms. I’ve long thought that Brahms difficult but brilliant works for the piano could be best-handled by a pianist with six fingers on each hand. His works for solo strings present a similar level of difficulty.

First up in this recital was a single movement from a rather oddball sonata known as the “F-A-E” Sonata for violin. It’s one of those strange, collaborative compositions that appear from time to time in Western musical history when two or more composers get together and decide to compose a new work together.

In this case, the young Brahms collaborated on this violin sonata with his new friend and champion, Robert Schumann and with one of Schumann’s most talented students, Albert Dietrich. Brahms contributed the sonata’s C minor scherzo, sometimes titled “Sonatensatz” when performed separately from the original work, which was only published in its entirety in 1935.

Ms. Shen performed an adaptation of this work for viola as her opening number, demonstrating from the start her confidence and mastery of technique.

She returned at the end of her program to do the “full Brahms,” performing his Sonata in F Minor, Op. 120, No. 1, which was originally composed for the clarinet but later adapted by the composer for the viola as well. It’s a wide-ranging work typical of the composer’s later compositions, filled as it is with romance, melancholy and heroic vigor.

Ms. Shen ably negotiated her way through each of Brahms’ four contrasting movements, ranging from the declamatory “Allegro appassionato,” through the deeply romantic “Andante,” the lyrical “Allegretto grazioso,” and the dashing finale marked “Vivace.” In each movement she demonstrated skill, poise and a deep understanding of Brahms’ musical intentions.

The audience greatly appreciated Ms. Shen’s efforts, and she thanked them for their enthusiasm by returning to perform a brief, lilting encore, a short, hesitation waltz number by Fritz Kreisler, if we heard the announcement correctly.

For what it’s worth, we only have one minor criticism of Ms. Shen’s technique. We are told that one excellent way of guaranteeing a precise down-bow attack is to exhale on the downbeat. It’s similar, in a way, to the technique used to steady a gun before firing at a bull’s eye.

Ms. Shen appears to be deploying this or a similar technique with great precision. But her exhaling was quite audible in quieter passages. But it’s something that should be easy enough to modify as this talented young artist continues to pursue what should be a most promising solo career.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars)

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17