The Viano Quartet Bursts into Flight

From left: Lucy Wang, Hao Zhou, Aiden Kane and Tate Zawadiuk. Click for full photo.

by Abby Wasserman

Few classical compositions based on bird song soar higher than Haydn’s Quartet in D Major, Op. 64, No. 5 (“The Lark”), the Viano Quartet’s opener May 5 at Chamber Music Marin.

As first violinist, Lucy Wang played the lark’s part on the high E string with admirable fluidity and purity of tone. Her violin took liquid flight above a thrumming landscape of sound by partners violinist Hao Zhou, cellist Tate Zawadiuk and violist Aiden Kane.

From sun and breeze and exuberance, Haydn’s music moved into tenderness and nostalgia. The music breathed like a living thing with an improvisatory feel to each movement. Even when ostensibly doing very little, the players excelled, as during the menuetto third movement when Ms. Kane’s viola line lay down short notes between phrases that evoked the image of small creatures peeking out from leafy branches. There were bursts of light and rich sonorities from Mr. Zhou’s violin and Mr. Zawadiuk’s cello. In the vivace fourth movement, which is evocative of a sailor’s hornpipe, Ms. Wang’s violin sound fluttered as nimbly as a feather on the wind. Mr. Zhou echoed the audience’s admiration of her virtuosity with a story: “When you have a really good friend, you like to give them a hard time. I think Haydn was very good friends with his first violinist!”

Ms. Kane teasingly introduced Smetana’s Quartet No. 1 in E minor, “From My Life,” composed in 1876, as “Smetana’s Concerto No. 1 for Viola,” alluding to an instrument that is often taken for granted and bringing a laugh from the audience. She also said “One can evaluate a piece of music by how much the composer trusts the viola player.” Smetana must have trusted his viola player greatly, because he wrote the theme of his string quartet for solo viola, which Ms. Kane played with electrifying intensity. It may have reflected the many misfortunes Smetana suffered, and Mr. Zhou as first violin communicated deep emotion with rich tone and expressive depth. Four bare plucked notes (two violin, two cello) ended the movement with simple eloquence. From despair and the rising storm of passion through sections of unutterable sweetness, the music was mesmerizing. During the second movement I appreciated the emphatic pulse the Viano players bring to their music. Even in the work’s darkest moments they were never lugubrious, always fierce. I felt that each performer voiced the composer’s sorrows and found light where light existed.

A favorite part of the third movement was when Mr. Zawadiuk’s cello played the main melody line deeply underneath the ensemble, creating a beautifully woven tapestry. The fourth movement was blithe, then furious. Toward its end a high E on the violin was the only sound, a sadness apparent in the lovely slow trills from the viola just before the work’s final notes: three plucked strings marking acceptance, perhaps even hope, as the piece settled into silence. For a long moment the audience too was silent, a rarity, before an appreciative ovation.

After intermission the Quartet turned to Beethoven’s 1806 String Quartet No. 8 in E minor, Op. 59, No. 2. Mr. Zawadiuk introduced the piece, calling the composer “the great architect” who could build an entire movement from two chords. This was the second of three quartets commissioned by Count Razumovsky, an accomplished violinist. Dense inner voices were woven under insistent rhythms and soaring melodies. The fugal section in the third movement was especially glorious, and the fourth movement was perfectly synched. At the thundering close, the audience leapt to its feet to applaud.

After two curtain calls Ms. Wang introduced their single encore, Mr. Zhou’s lush arrangement of “Ashokan Farewell,” composed by the American folk musician Jay Ungar in 1982. It featured a juicy viola part for Ms. Kane, who spent years in Texas as a young person playing bluegrass fiddle. The tune is beautiful, but this arrangement gave me chills. Each musician in turn took the lead descant and passed it on, and three-part harmonies sang beneath. When the arrangement ended, the audience again rose to applaud the sterling Quartet.

Published on, May 10, 2024