This story was originally published by ArtsATL.
The Vega Quartet paid tribute to its retiring violist Yinzi Kong at Saturday’s concert in the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts, and also performed as a trio after the sudden illness of violinist Emily Daggett Smith.
On top of that, the final installment of Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta’s 30th season was scheduled to feature the world premiere of a new string quartet by rising star composer Joel Thompson, an alumnus of the Emory University music program and Ransom’s own piano student. Unfortunately the work was not completed in time and two weeks prior to the premiere the evening’s setlist was restructured accordingly. (Thompson’s piece will now premiere in the spring of 2024 at Emory)
Smith’s health issue reduced the group to a trio less than 24 hours’ before the concert. When Emory Chamber Music Society of Atlanta director William Ransom took the stage for the final concert of the season his usual sense of gentle good cheer was unflappable, and he quipped that “man plans and God laughs.”
The absence of the fourth member sent the quartet scrambling for works performed as a trio and Ransom stepped in on piano where possible. That restructuring yielded the evening’s new and deeply satisfying thematic focal point: the imminent retirement of Kong. The concert was tailored to feature her prominently.
The opening piece was a viola rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach’s iconic solo work Cello Suite in G Major. The work is meant to build its melodic foundation in the lower end of the cello’s register and thereby deliver jabs of emotional dynamism when the melody leaps into the instrument’s higher range. Much of that is lost when the work is confined to the viola’s smaller scale. Nevertheless Kong’s technical ability made for an enjoyable performance.
The second work of the evening, Dohnanyi Ernst’s Serenade for String Trio, saw Kong joined by her Vega colleagues — violinist Jessica Shuang Wu and cellist Guang Wang — for their only appearance of the evening. The piece itself is captivating from a playing standpoint. It leans heavily on the coherence provided by the cello, and Wang rose to the occasion.
Ransom returned after the intermission for a tribute to Ben F. Johnson III, one of the Emory Chamber Music Society’s most prominent behind-the-scenes supporters, with a performance of Johannes Brahms’ solo piano work Intermezzo in A. The work is gentle and hopeful with a warm, kind hearted aura that well served the gratitude Ransom hoped to impart.
The final work of the evening, Johannes Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, saw Kong and Ransom perform together. Originally written for clarinet, Brahms also sanctioned the work to be performed for viola as well and the pairing fit the husband and wife duo of Ransom and Kong wonderfully. Their interplay, fueled as much by their deep personal connection as their lifetimes of musical mastery, was an effortless afterthought. It created the aura that the sound was coming not from performers but rather some deep and soulful stirrings that touched the audience’s collective unconscious. The result served as an emotional sendoff for Kong.
After the show Kong explained that her decision to retire from the Vega Quartet — and from regular performance in general — comes from a long standing desire to find out what else life has in store for her. She will still perform occasionally but after a lifetime spent in music and her 50th birthday looming large on the horizon, she feels it’s time to pursue other interests. “I might sell houses,” she mused. “It’s a wild world out there. I’ve been a musician my whole life and I would love to do some volunteer work. I love animals, so I’ll probably look for volunteer work at a shelter.”
Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.
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