2013-12-8/9 – Sheng Cai & the WSO Clearwater Quartet

Audience as Critic

Sheng Cai, Piano

WSO Clearwater Quartet:

Gwen Hoebig & Karl Stobbe violins;

Dan Scholz, viola; Yuri Hooker, cello

with Meredith Johnson, double bass


Scarlatti: Sonata in F minor K. 466; Sonata in D major K. 96, La Chasse

Haydn: Quartet in D major Op.64 No.5

Chopin: Ballade No.4 in F minor Op.52

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No.4 in G major

  1. It is a real treat to listen to Sheng Cai. He plays with wonderful knowledge of time and texture. He gave a lot – very generous and full of joy. Thank you for bringing him here! I look forward to hearing him play again over the coming years. S.G.
  2. Magnificent as usual. Kudos to Harry re his erudite and beautiful choices. D.W.
  3. Sheng Cai is a splendid pianist with a friendly disposition to match. Bravo! The Quartet members enjoy playing together and it shows. Their collaboration with Sheng Cai was full of infectious enthusiasm. He is truly a star performer, bringing the music to life! Thank you! D.L.
  4. Very enjoyable concert. Thank you KPMG. F.W.
  5. Wonderful! Passionate pianist. B.F.
  6. It was a privilege to hear Mr. Cai on the piano. He is a most impressive expressionist, and so young! It is also interesting to see and hear our Winnipeg Symphony stars as individuals. This young pianist will go far! What a fine cause KPMG sponsored. Thank you! M.D.
  7. The Beethoven No. 4 was one of the best performances of the season. Sheng Cai is certainly a fantastic pianist, and will stand as one of the greats. H.A.T.
  8. I think it’s time that the performers give up evening dress in favour of styles that are a bit less old fashioned. No one wears tail coats anymore- they are an anachronism. The Quartet was very fine.  B.N.
  9. Excellent evening of incredible performance. Sheng Cai- stunning. Quartet- Always exciting. Thanks to funders!! Perfect evening. Now if we could just get rid of the wind chill. L.B.
  10. Very moving. Great talent. Haydn SQ wonderful.  J.P.
  11. Such a lovely concert – a nice mix of music. Haydn was beautifully played. Chopin Ballade likewise. Many thanks to the concert’s sponsors for making this evening possible!  M.K.
  12. Scarlatti F minor played with great warmth of melody + sensitivity and freedom, not just a “usual” Scarlatti. D major – athletic leaps & stunningly agile technique, but highlighting the wonderful melody and sensitive dynamics. Virtuosity, but not for its own sake, but with pure musicality.  Haydn – sheer delight – precision, sensitivity, and again the warmth of the melody. Chopin f minor Ballade – enviable technique – abundance of rubato without sentimentality to excess – but freedom of expression. If Virtuosi is trying to end the deep freeze outside they succeeded.  The warmth was evident throughout.  V.H.
  13. What a wonderful sound in a very intimate setting. The comments from our hosts and musicians added to the whole experience by giving us some insight into the composers. Thank you, thank you, thank you.  W.P.
  14. Stupendous! Let’s hear many more concertos with the WSO Clearwater Quartet!  M.S.
  15. Body and soul. We enjoyed it all. What a gift for us. Thanks.  M.T.
  16. Amazing concert. Pianist outstanding. WSO Clearwater String Quartet a musical treat. As always, a marvelous evening. 5 stars.  Anonymous
  17. If the piano pieces had been in themselves more delicate, this would have been the finest playing since Jalbert’s “Goldberg Variations with the Women’s Musical Club. With the strings substituting for the orchestra, one could see better how beautifully the work was constructed, and how well the piano and the “orchestra” interacted, passing the theme from one to the other. Perhaps my favourite concert of the fall! (made up for the Boston Trio)  D.B.
  18. I don’t know if the Scarlatti pieces are more fun to play or to listen to. The contrasting moods were beautifully played. Mr. Cai plays with such an air of discovery, as though he is just now finding the music in those keys. He obviously enjoys making music, and with the WSO Clearwater String Quartet we had a lovely intimate performance of the Beethoven; the double bass makes it sound quite full.  M.G.
  19. Great music for a frigid Sunday afternoon. Quelle encore with Chopin’s Polonaise! Bravo! The Best!  B.B.
  20. Music to warm the frozen breast!  G.B.
  21. Exquisite playing throughout. Very vigorous Chopin, elegant Haydn Quartet, a very intriguing, but enjoyable Beethoven, and a very brilliant encore!  L.D.
  22. Supernatural playing by Sheng Cai. I feel blessed by God to have seen him. It is especially good to see how he enjoys himself. The WSO Clearwater SQ was also superb. Thank you.  V.S.
  23. Wonderful performers. Sheng Cai was inspiring and amazing.  P.K.
  24. Lovely Quartet and Quintet, but at times overpowered by the pianist!  S.O.


The Audience as Critic: Supplemental critiques from 12 students enrolled in Harry’s Honours seminar course, Psychology and the Arts:

S#1.  As my first Virtuosi Concert, I found the experience very pleasurable. I have only been to big symphonies before and found the intimate space here let the music overwhelm the audience.  Sheng Cai’s piano work really made the music come alive for me. I felt there was an intention behind every note he played. The most amazing thing to me was that you could see the intention in his body as well as hearing it in the music.  There was an emotional quality to the music that left me breathless. His playing was very stylized and was enjoyable to watch. The WSO Clearwater Quartet changed the energy in the room. I thought that the quartet played so well together that sometimes I felt myself distracted by watching their technique.  In the last movement of the Haydn piece I felt I was watching two violinists play in perfect harmony. As an audience member you could tell they play together frequently and enjoy playing together, which made the performance amazing to watch. I felt the talent of the musicians and the way the music filled the space really affected me as an audience member. The overall concert was a new experience for me and I enjoyed it.

S#2.  The show was thoroughly enjoyable. It’s been quite a journey! Thank you for a very unique and inspiring class. I am going to miss it next semester!         I may not be extremely well-versed in classical music but I certainly know how it makes me feel and so that is the lens my review will be coming from. I find Chopin to be one of my favourite composers because when played well the emotion and romance in his music can be felt easily for me. Sheng Cai not only played the piece with effortless fluidity but he also exemplified what I feel is necessary for any virtuoso and that is displaying the emotion in the music. The Ballade #4 felt like a love story to me, with the soft moments of pure love and the grand moments of passion, whether that be of loving or fighting that is felt in most great love affairs. The ease from which I felt this story is due to the ease from which Sheng played the piece and displayed those feelings. I found myself closing my eyes to better listen to the music but then wanting to open them again immediately because Sheng’s expression was so mesmerizing to watch while he played. Sometimes I think those who play often may become bored or too technically achieved that they stop feeling the music but that is certainly not the case with Sheng, he is a true performer when he plays.

I adore string quartets and this troupe was a fine example of why. The WSO Clearwater String Quartet was not only polished but able to find moments of humour in their pieces. I don’t know that we often think of music as having moments of humour but it certainly can when played with skill and emotional depth. The Haydn Quartet in D Major showcased this especially well as each movement had a new feeling attached to it and the Menuetto felt jovial.       When they came together with the pianist, it was rather magical, especially for a piece that could again showcase the breadth of their emotional expression. Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.4 in G Major had three very distinct movements and each one was played differently both from a technical perspective as well as an emotional one. For this reason I thoroughly enjoyed all the pieces because they didn’t just play them well, they were all played with feeling.

S#3.  I attended the “Beethoven Rediscovered!” with little expectation of what I was about to observe. In all honesty, I had fallen on ice earlier that day and it was a frigid night, so I wasn’t the most excited about having to leave my house. However, the performances by pianist Sheng Cai and the WSO Clearwater Quartet happened to be the most wonderful compensation for my less than positive mood, and I soon found myself being swept up in the virtuosity of the music. The impressiveness of the sheer skill and talent of these performers cannot be overstated. The speed with which Sheng Cai masterfully played Scarlatti’s Sonata in D major was absolutely breathtaking, and stood in such contrast to the heartfelt, melancholy tone of the first Sonata in F minor. One of the theories of Denis Dutton (The Art Instinct) that we discussed in class struck me as appropriate, that being that human achievement induces awe. The distinction between human fingers and electronic mimicry for the speed of a piece played on a piano was the perfect example used by Dutton (pp.185-186), and could not have fit better when considering the greatness of Sheng Cai’s ability. The WSO Clearwater Quartet then played Haydn’s Quartet in D major with astounding accuracy and excellent blend. Each instrument resonated perfectly together, with the performers seemingly effortlessly playing together as one. Sheng Cai returned to play Ballade #4  by Chopin before the intermission, with as much intensity and emotion as his Scarlatti sonatas. After the intermission, where I was able to step out and have some cookies and juice (and give my senses a momentary break to take in more of the music), the WSO Clearwater Quartet joined Meredith Johnson on the double bass as well as Sheng Cai for the Piano Concerto No.4 by Ludwig Van Beethoven. It was absolutely captivating. When watching such a high calibre performance, there comes a point where you almost feel like it can’t possibly get any better, and then it does. I left the  concert awestruck and thoroughly impressed by the skill displayed, and emotionally riveted by the music experienced. I couldn’t begin to think of a better reason to leave my house in such frigid weather.

S#4. Attending the Virtuosi Concert yesterday was a new and overall enjoyable experience for me.  I say that it was “new” because I haven’t seen live classical music in approximately 10 years.  I enjoyed the fact that the concert was quite intimate. Particularly, I enjoyed the parts when pianist Sheng Cai spoke to the audience.  At a less intimate concert this may not have been possible without use of a microphone.  It would have had a different “feel”.  The only (minor) thing I have to complain about is that I was seated in a place where I could not see Sheng Cai’s hands as he played. I would have loved to see the speed of his fingers.  I enjoyed watching the quartet because I did not grow up around string instruments so they still seem very novel to me. I find it fascinating to watch them being played.  The individual who accompanied me to the concert also enjoyed herself.  I am very glad to have had the opportunity to have attended a Virtuosi Concert.

S#5. This was a lovely way to spend my Sunday afternoon.  Every time a new piece started I was sure that one would be my favourite, but then it would just get better.  I particularly enjoyed Sheng Cai’s performance of Scarlatti’s La Chasse sonata. It gave the sensation that he was chasing himself, and catching up.     My absolute favourite was Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and the way the piano and strings would play off of each other, building up the piece in a playful and surprising way.  Despite the stresses of the season and exam time, this piece in particular was able to remove me from these anxieties and then take delight in several spontaneous smiles from me.  This concert was an ideal way to finish off a semester of learning about music, art, fiction, and psychology.

S#6. Thanks for inviting me to this concert; it has answered some of my questions about music.  For a long time, I did not understand the reason for attending a live  concert instead of simply listening to a CD, but now I do. A performer is the secondary author of the music; there is a motivation to interact with this person. This is a unique experience of feeling so close to a live artist. I am now more aware that music is composed in a certain period of time and for a certain group of people, and for the specific reason of expressing something essential or to serving somebody in particular. I felt that the music performed during the concert was not merely enjoyable sounds, but sounds that represented the composer and took the audience back to the time of the composition. Imagine if music was composed for a king, then happiness instead of sadness will be more appropriate as the tone to represent the identity of a king. To listen to classical music in the future, I will now try to understand the relevant background of the composer and the purpose of composing.

S#7.  Between Sheng Cai’s brilliant display of talent on the piano, and the WSO Clearwater Quartet’s collective musicality, this was a truly entertaining experience.  Admittedly not quite sure what to expect, I was very impressed by Sheng Cai’s performance from the beginning.  The perspective from my seat did not allow for a view of his hands or the keys, however this allowed me to focus mainly on his expression as he performed.  I was enthralled by his facial expressions as he played.  It was if he was not only performing on stage, but also was a member of the audience, shifting emotions along with the mood of the piece.  It was obvious how immersed in the music he was from beginning to end, and this contributed significantly to my enjoyment of his performance.  The chemistry between the members of the Clearwater Quartet was also a quite evident aspect of their performance, and playing together they were able to add a depth to their performance that was quite impressive.  The combination of the piano and strings was the perfect way to end the collective performance, and the playful back and forth aspect between the two sections made for a great musical experience.

S#8.  One thing that stood out to me that I rarely ever experience is how absorbed the musicians are with their work. I was fascinated with the piano player, Sheng Cai. It is truly remarkable how much of himself he puts into the music as he plays. His body movement, facial expressions, and reactions after playing parts of a piece show such incredible emotion. My favorite piece was the Ballade No. 4 in F minor, Op. 52 composed by Chopin as done by Sheng Cai. The highs and lows, the waxing and waning, and the different levels of intensity were quite captivating. Again, his ability to get into the music, be passionate while playing, and show such dramatic levels of intensity make for an outstanding performance.

S#9.  I thoroughly enjoyed this concert. The atmosphere was refined and pleasant, and it appeared all that attended were captivated and appreciative.  Sheng Cai was infectiously passionate and expressive, and although I have no background in piano, he was clearly an incredibly talented pianist.  The WSO Clearwater Quartet put on a spectacular performance as well.  I enjoyed their enthusiasm and the playful way in which they played together.  The Beethoven Concerto which involved all of the musicians was incredible, and the performers all seemed communicative and in sync with one another.  I particularly enjoyed the Chopin Ballade and I feel it was a great demonstration of Sheng Cai’s talent.  The piece seemed ethereal, like something out of a dream and I felt the emotions flowed in such a way that it took me along with it.  All of the pieces involved unique emotions, and I felt very connected to all of them.  After spending the term investigating human beings’ intense emotional connection to music it was a fitting ending to the term to attend a performance that demonstrated this phenomenon perfectly.  It was clear that the music connected everyone in the room: the audience, Sheng Cai, and the WSO Quartet.  I was not familiar with any of the pieces prior to this Sunday, but they were diverse, impressive, and each was captivating in its own way.  I can say unequivocally that I will attend more Virtuosi Concerts after this delightful experience.

S#10. The Virtuosi Concert was the perfect conclusion to a great class. Sheng Cai and the WSO Clearwater Quartet put a face and a sound to many of the different principles discussed during class. Principles such as how influential great pieces of music can be even after 300 years, how music can bring together and synchronize a large group of people, even across time, how emotions can be conveyed through music and how talent is a product of hard work and passion. The course also added a bit of humour to what was a beautiful display of art, in that I was reminded of how it has become a modern thing in which many people gather together, to sit quietly, to listen and be transported by just a handful of very talented people, which, to our ancestors or even some traditional present-day cultures, would seem very odd because we aren’t actually participating.  However, getting to the actual concert, Sheng Cai’s performance as well as his showmanship allowed, not only myself, but my date, to become fully immersed in the story of the pieces we were fortunate enough to hear. The passion in which Sheng Cai played was enticing and invigorating, breathing life into pieces I may have never heard but am thankful that I now have. As always the WSO Clearwater Quartet was a pleasure to listen to, as I allow myself to drown in the rich full tones of the viola, double bass, and my favourite, the cello. Psychology and the Arts has taught me that above all, music is relevant today in connecting people, and although the audience didn’t participate, through the inspiring phrases of Scarlatti, Haydn, Chopin & Beethoven – as transformed by the WSO Clearwater Quartet and more importantly Sheng Cai’s elegant, artistic playing –   a connection was made amongst audience members, amongst  musicians, and also  between the audience and the musicians, and the entire assemblage  with people from the past who also felt a connection to the stories found within the music.  My date’s favourite piece was  the Chopin Ballade No.4; he said  he could perfectly follow the piece as though it were a story, or better yet a movie, and he could feel the romance which Sheng Cai explained with insight. Thank you again for the concert.

S#11. I just want to thank you for giving us the tickets because it was truly a wonderful experience. I really appreciated being able to hear such talented musicians and what I did hear really resonated with me. I find I rarely get to experience classical music in that way and it was a really nice change from the concert experiences I usually have. Anyways, thank you again for the concert and for a great course experience. As well, congratulations on a beautiful evening and all the best with the concert series in the future. Review:  I find it extremely difficult to put into words the experience of attending a musical performance such as the one I experienced at Virtuosi Concerts. Even upon entering the theatre, one could see and feel the beauty in the room. Everything from the layout of the instruments on the stage, to the look of anticipation in people’s faces, waiting eagerly to hear whatever sounds would emerge; I knew immediately I was going to be experiencing something out of the ordinary.  I was not left unsatisfied as the musical stylings of Sheng Cai and the Clearwater Quartet were nothing less than masterful.  The music was so outstanding it immediately entranced me to the point where if someone asked me to hum a piece for them, I wouldn’t be able to, however I would be able to describe the emotional experience I had. I felt as though I was on a journey through the pieces and the music was simply a background to all the emotions they were eliciting in me and others in the room. I found myself imagining scenarios and feelings that could be accompanied by the music and it was as if the music was helping to tell the most beautiful stories anyone has ever told. Something I do remember specifically that moved me, was during a piece I caught a glimpse of a man in front of me wipe a tear from his eye, and then take his young daughters hand sitting next to him lovingly as though something in the music had brought them closer together. I feel that to adequately give a review  I would have to see it again just to focus on what I would write about as after the first note was played, I was taken by the music to a different place and didn’t return until the very last note. Again, it is so hard to describe the experience of attending the concert but I will never forget the feeling of the music and the journey that the virtuosi took me on.

(Complied by J. Strub and H. Strub)