40 years on, the Shanghai Quartet continues mission to boost China’s chamber music, train young talents
Back to the beginning
Published: Mar 15, 2023 11:50 PM
The Shanghai Quartet perform on March 12, 2023 in Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

The Shanghai Quartet (from left: Li Weigang, Yu Xiang, Nicholas Tzavaras, Li Honggang ) perform on March 12, 2023 in Shanghai. Photo: Courtesy of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

It was a wonderful Sunday night for both the audience sitting in the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Hall and the Shanghai Quartet on the stage as the internationally acclaimed string quartet was back where their chamber music legend started four decades ago. 

In 1983, four students from the Shanghai Conservatory of Music began to practice string quartet, a genre of chamber music that was barely known to Chinese musicians at the time, let alone to the audience. Among the four were Li Weigang and his little brother Li Honggang, who had a small dream to "see the world outside while participating in international competitions." Two years later, the four young men made a name for themselves by winning second place at the Portsmouth International Quartet Competition in England. 

"After so many years, we don't feel that the 40th anniversary is particularly different, but we do hope to use this as an opportunity to maintain our curiosity and spirit of exploration, hoping to do things that we never had the opportunity or time to do before," Li Weigang, who now plays first violin in the quartet, told the Global Times in a telephone interview. 

Where the dream started 

The Sunday concert marked the start of the celebrations of the 40th anniversary by the quartet and the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, which will include a series of concerts and a special concerto.

Haydon, Mozart and Beethoven… 

Li Weigang said that he himself, his brother, who plays the viola, US cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, who's been in the quartet for 25 years, and second violin Yu Xiang, who joined in 2020, are still as fascinated with string quartet ­music as they were while in college. 

"The Sunday concert meant a lot to us as it marked our return to the starting point from 40 years ago, performing the pieces that we love so much. Although time and experience have helped us change and grow, we are still sincere about music and about our dream to share the beauty of music and our Chinese roots," Li noted. 

After winning the prize in England, the group went to the US for further study and made their New York debut in 1987. It was all smooth sailing as they gradually grew into one of the most renowned international chamber groups touring around the world. Over the decades, the quartet has staged nearly 3,000 concerts worldwide and made 35 records. In late 2022, they decided to move back to China after being based in the US for 30 years, in the hope of helping train young Chinese talents and increasing the popularity of chamber music in China. 

"Each generation has their mission. Our mission was to introduce classic music to the young Chinese of our time. You have made Chinese chamber music known to the world. It is your mission to pass on these dreams and spirit to today's young people," retired musician Ding Zhinuo said during a Sunday event to mark the quartet's 40th anniversary. 

Forty years ago, Ding was the four young men's tutor. 

Ding recalled that the young quadruplet had a very hard time preparing for the competition in England. 

"We had nothing - no music sheet, no lecture books and more importantly, no experience in chamber music," Ding noted. Ding had to turn to different friends to borrow some books and find easier and shorter pieces to practice. They picked Beethoven's String Quartets No.16 as it is a short piece. 

"We later discovered that it was Beethoven's most philosophical work, similar to choosing Shakespeare's most difficult play as a maiden show, and we didn't have that ability yet," said the elder Li. 

Photo: Courtesy of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra

Photo: Courtesy of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra


After their return to China, working as professors at the Tianjin Juilliard School and touring around the country became the core work and life of the Shanghai Quartet. 

"Performing on stage brings the joy and happiness of music even when there are only hundreds of people sitting in the hall," said Li Weigang. "However, a more difficult mission for us is to cultivate the next generation, passing on our experience to young people as chamber music is embracing rising popularity in China." 

The only American in the group, Tzavaras first visited China in 2001. He said it was an honor to join the quartet as he could "appreciate Chinese culture and Chinese food as well." 

Moving to China meant his big family had to face language barriers and cultural differences, but they have determined to make a living in Tianjin as the Shanghai Quartet is doing something meaningful. 

"Chamber music is thriving and its development here is much faster than in any other country," said Yu, the group's newest member. 

He said he hopes to "help more young Chinese people fall in love with ­music and realize that participating in quartet is more interesting than playing solo on stage." 

According to Zhou Ping, president of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, the Shanghai Quartet will return to the music hall to wrap up their national tour that includes Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province; Kunming, Southwest China's Yunnan Province; Fuzhou, East China's Fujian Province and the island of Hainan. In the summer, they will also release a new album, including "Chinese Folk Songs for String Quartet" composed by musician Zhou Long.