The members of the Shanghai Quartet are sitting in their rehearsal room at Montclair State University when Weigang Li, 47, the first violinist, is asked whether bragging rights go with occupying that first chair. He laughs. “There is no leader, in rehearsal or in concert,” he says. “The quartet is a true democracy.”
To which his brother, Honggang Li, 49, the violist, responds, “Democracy wastes a lot of time.” Everyone laughs, including second violinist Yi-Wen Jiang, 48, and cellist Nicholas Tzavaras, 36.
Weigang nods. “It’s a terrible system,” he agrees. “But everything else is worse.”
They would know. The Li brothers hail from Shanghai and Jiang from Beijing. The brothers formed the string quartet at the Shanghai Conservatory in 1983. Jiang joined in 1994; Tzavaras, who is Greek and Italian and hails from Spanish Harlem, in 2000.
Now, 28 years after the founding, Weigang reflects, “If I had to do it all over again, I would have very serious second thoughts.” That elicits an appreciative laugh from his colleagues. “But we’ve been quite lucky,” he continues, “because when we started in Shanghai, nobody really played chamber music and nobody really knew what a professional quartet’s life is like…Now we are still trying to touch areas of repertoire we haven’t done and challenge ourselves.”
The Shanghai’s 30-album discography includes a wide range of material, from Bach to Bartok to contemporary composers such as Zhou Long and Bright Sheng, and a well-received album of Chinese folk songs arranged by Jiang. The quartet’s sound is warm yet vigorous. Wei calls it “romantic—with rules.” He adds, “We are striving for something authentic to the composer, but don’t be afraid to let go when the music calls for it.”
Foremost among the challenges is taking a hands-on approach to being artists in residence at Montclair State. “Normally a residency is like a kind of jewelry the university can wear,” says Tzavaras. The Shanghai had that kind of mainly prestige-bestowing residency at the University of Richmond in Virginia. But when Montclair State University president Susan Cole approached the group in 2002, she was looking for something more.
“They were world-class musicians, but we also thought they would be superb and dedicated teachers, and that has proven to be the case,” Cole says. “We wanted a real integration of the quartet into the life of our music programs and the university. And that was very attractive to them, and it was the only thing we were looking for.”
Since arriving at MSU in 2002, the Shanghai have built the string department from less than 16 students to about 65. In MSU’s Cali School of Music, each teaches about eight hours a week and is heavily involved in recruiting promising students. The quartet invites leading virtuosos to participate in master classes at the school and performs in MSU’s Peak Performances series at the state-of-the-art Alexander Kasser Theater twice a year. (The next performance, with clarinetist Michel Lethiec, is December 17.) All four live in New Jersey. “When I go to New York City I feel excited,” says Honggang, “and when I come home I feel like, Oh this is so comfortable.”
Between constant rehearsals and about 170 days a year of touring, “we spend more time with each other than with our wives,” says Jiang. As a result, when they travel they sit in different rows in airplanes and take rooms on different floors in hotels. “You don’t have to share every part of you,” Jiang says. “There’s a very healthy boundary.”
Not that they are stuffed shirts. “Not only are they gifted artists and committed teachers,” says Cole. “They are four of the warmest and most generous-hearted people you would ever care to meet. They are just great guys. They’re wonderful to have on campus.”