Guest Review: Andrew Singer on Behind the Strings

We wanted to share a recent review from Andrew Singer, a Cape Cod based writer and speaker on China, on "Behind The Strings", a documentary which recently premiered at the Woods Hole Film Festival. "Behind the Strings" tells the story of the formation, rise, and success of the Shanghai String Quartet, the price they had to pay to stay on top, and their triumphant return to China to play the music that they love.


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Behind the Strings, a documentary of the Shanghai Quartet, is “a 365-degree view” of four musicians, their lives, their families, and their passion, dedication, and sacrifices for their contemporary classical craft. I enjoyed being wrapped up in their inspiring journey, listening to the story of the music that can and does reflect the moods of life, the drama and joy. I attended this viewing with my fiancée, a Chinese woman from Central China who had not previously heard of the Shanghai Quartet. She admires them for their bravery and for following their dreams when they did not know if they could or would succeed. That they persevered and reached this position makes her happy.


Screened for its first live audience at the 30th Annual Woods Hole Film Festival on Cape Cod, MA, Executive Producer Michael Peroff offered his behind the scenes view of this work that he and Director Hal Rifken spent five years producing. The two invested the time to build trust with the members and their families and colleagues, traveling the world with them and thereby becoming flies on the wall day in and day out. As a result, reducing more than 150 hours of footage to less than two hours was a herculean effort because the material is so engrossing.

Shanghai brothers Li Weigang and Li Honggang come from an intellectual family that suffered through the Cultural Revolution, but still saw the then fifteen-year-old, elder brother play for Isaac Stern in 1979 when the latter visited a recently re-opened China. The two young violinists put together a chamber quartet in 1983 to compete for the first time in a London music festival the following year. Coming in a somewhat surprising second, they impressed with their skill and the four soon found themselves studying in America. Through talent, hard work, and fortunate breaks, they studied under several famous musicians, matured, deepened their ties to the music, and became a sensation far and wide.


The Shanghai Quartet plays Western music, Chinese music, and blended compositions. East meets West, and West meets East. They are known for their unique offerings and have been accompanied by varied soloists and collaborated with many maestros over the years. In 2019, they premiered the revised “Feng Ya Song”, pianist and composer Tan Dun’s (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) award-winning 1983 composition for string quartet.

But being in a string quartet is not a life of ease. Working fulltime academic jobs, practicing for several hours every day, and traveling up to 180 days a year for performances takes its toll personally and professionally. Two of the current quartet are married to classically-trained musicians who set aside their own careers to raise families. These wives have to rely on themselves to keep the family going. It can be challenging and emotional, but they support the choices they and their spouses have made. The members themselves note that they often ask for rooms as far apart from each other as possible in hotels because they simply need their space. These musicians have dedicated to spending more of their lives with each other than with their spouses, children, dogs and chickens.


They are individuals with their own backgrounds, baggage, and personalities. Yet they come together to act as a cohesive organism, and they do it very publicly. Yet, put four strong personalities who are tops of their chosen profession in a close-knit environment, and there will be fireworks. Criticism is hard to take, even more so when it comes from someone who might know you better than you know yourself. Chippiness is a not uncommon default response. Fortunately, these dust-ups have traditionally been limited to practice sessions. When the performance starts, the soul of the music, and the musicians, is on display for all to appreciate and savor.


The group has had to adapt over the decades. When their viola player left at one point, brother Li Honggang transitioned from second violin to play this new instrument. When they needed a new cello player, American Nicholas Tzavaras joined the group. He is the first, and only, non-Chinese member of the Shanghai Quartet. Hailing from a family of musicians, Nicholas took up the cello at a young age because it was something his violinist mother did not play (and one suspects was much bigger than her violin). Now recently former member Yi-wen Jiang (second violin) wrote many of the original songs in the group’s repertoire.


Although they have a manager who still arranges gigs, the Quartet members have been in charge of their own travel and accommodations for many years. This results in seeming non sequiturs during rehearsals when they also discuss train and plane schedules, ticket costs, and logistics in between songs. Over the past half a decade or so, they have been touring repeatedly in the new China and show no sign of slowing down.


Why do they practice as hard as they do? Why do they critique their performance of a song one week after performing it beautifully during a concert? Because, “if we ever achieve perfection, there will be no reason to go on.” The music can always be better is the basis of their intimate commitment. Audiences see the tuxedos, the bow ties, the intense concentration on their brows, and witness a skilled presentation of soaring, soothing, and searing music. They do not see the back story. Until now.


Behind the Strings (movie trailer) takes us deep through the history and daily life of four individuals who bring skill, beauty, and enjoyment to so many around the world.