Just learned that the music critic Ken Winters, who for the past few years wrote for the Globe and Mail, passed away two months ago at the age of 81. A former radio producer who worked with Mr. Winters during his years as a CBC host commented that he “didn’t fit the CBC mould” because “he didn’t speak in short sentences, with the subject always at the beginning … Sometimes, we would just have to stop tape and wait for him to finish his script, in longhand. He was … very old-school.”

In fact, Mr. Winters didn’t seem to fit the “Global and Mail mould” neither. Here is his 2009 review of a Ying Quartet concert at Music Toronto (I was at the concert). Note the headline was written by a newspaper editor:

Ying Quartet’s new member plays like one of the family: new violinist caps a dazzling evening of music making

      It was hard to realize that the irrepressibly youthful, all-sibling Ying Quartet – in residence since 1996 at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester – has been performing for more than 20 years. Its passion and verve bear no faint taint of world-weariness. Incredible, too, was first violin Timothy Ying’s announcement from the platform that this concert for Music Toronto would be his final one with the ensemble.

      Ying has moved with his wife and children to Toronto, and his three siblings – Janet, second violin; Phillip, viola; and David, cello – have been joined by Frank Huang as the quartet’s new first violin.

      Timothy bade his farewell before the opening Haydn quartet ( Opus 76 No. 2 , the famous Quinten ) with, he said, “mixed emotions,” and we had to wonder whether these emotions were the cause of the only shadow on an otherwise dazzling evening of music making.

      The first violin’s swift upward-arching roulades in the opening Allegro of the Haydn fell off pitch in their upper reaches. These tiny but audible flaws apart, the performance of the Haydn was brilliant, if a touch incorporeal. The term Haydnesque implies intellectual lucidity and great élan but with firm body in its sounds and rhythms. The Yings certainly achieved that body in the tough little third movement, the canonic Menuetto , but elsewhere they sacrificed the music’s heft for speed and lightness.

      For me, the real musical surprises of the evening began with the short pieces by three Chinese composers – Tan Dun, Zhou Long and Chen Yi.

      The excerpts from Tan Dun’s Eight Colours for String Quartet were stunners, fully on a level with vintage Bartok, bristling with the same calibre of rhythmic zest and sonic invention, but with a singular ingenuity all Tan Dun’s own, drawing, he says, on “Chinese colours and the techniques of Peking Opera.”

      Zhou Long’s Song of the Ch’in (a plucked, seven-string zither-like instrument) is a softer, more pastoral concept, depicting mountains, valleys and mists of southwestern China with delicate lines and original textures.

      Chen Yi’s Shuo (Initiate) is the most conventional harmonically of the three, yet she, also, has her own voice, rising out of a sympathy with Chinese folk and mountain songs.

      The Ying’s performances of these variously exacting pieces were deeply committed, rhythmically riveting and a triumph of natural sympathy.

      Then they topped all with an amazing performance of the Debussy Quartet in G minor , the French master’s only contribution to the genre, and a work I have always admired but never quite loved. All I can say about the Ying’s ravishing performance is that it transformed my feelings about this music. It entered the essence of Debussy’s unique vision, adoring it and making it speak. In the rapt silence between the movements, you could have heard a pin drop.

Special to The Globe and Mail

The question is: who played first violin in the concert? A new member (Frank Huang), or the old one (Timothy Ying)? It might not be particularly obvious for an impatient reader if he hasn’t been to the concert; especially so when he has limited reading ability. The third paragraph is just a little intriguing when Mr. Winters said “Timothy bade his farewell before the opening …”, but if the editor who wrote the headline paid attention to what followed, he would have understood that the violinist went on playing the concert after bidding the farewell verbally, hence the “shadow” – in fact, the concert itself was the farewell. Again:

“Timothy bade his farewell before the opening Haydn quartet with, he said, ‘mixed emotions,’ and we had to wonder whether these emotions were the cause of the only shadow on an otherwise dazzling evening of music making.”

This is probably the kind of discursive writing that is beyond the reach of modern journalism when a labored coarseness is treasured, and when a spontaneous floridity went unheeded.

Ken Winters hosted CBC’s Mostly Music:
Ken Winters by untimelythoughts