Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Formosa Quartet: From Hungary to Taiwan

Formosa Quartet: violist Che-Yen Chen, violinists Wayne Lee and Jasmine Lin, cellist Deborah Pae. Sam Zauscher photograph

Formosa Quartet: violist Che-Yen Chen, violinists Wayne Lee and Jasmine Lin, cellist Deborah Pae. Sam Zauscher photograph

Every country has been a melting pot, and it’s best not to forget that.

The Formosa Quartet does not, and the group reminds everyone—in many different ways—of the multiple sources for musical culture in their new release, “From Hungary to Taiwan.”

That CD, with its vaguely puzzling title, and the ensemble’s long-running summer festival in Taiwan, give Formosa the chance to show how heritages—musical and otherwise—are linked in profound ways. “It’s a very personal project,” says violinist Wayne Lee of “From Hungary to Taiwan.” The CD is built on unusual pairings—Bartók’s fourth quartet with Wei-Chieh Lin’s Taiwanese traditional songs, and Dana Wilson’s “Hungarian Folk Songs” with Lei Liang’s “Song Recollections.”

“Three of these are commissions for the group,” Lee says. “We started with the Wilson piece (Formosa commissioned it in 2008)—it had been germinating for a long time. We had the idea of using it with a Bartók quartet, and with different representations of folk traditions.

“Our Taiwanese heritage means a lot to the group. Lei Liang’s music is taken from five aboriginal tribes in Taiwan—there are something like sixteen of them altogether. Lei gives the songs a stylized treatment.

“One of Lei Liang’s songs is a Pasibutbut,” Lee says. “Wei-Chieh sets one too. It’s from the Bunun tribe, and harmonically sophisticated. It’s a sacred song—a tribe sings it six times a year, basically as a prayer for a rich millet harvest.

“The men sit in a circle, and sing in major triads. One man singing goes up  a quarter-tone, and everyone else also goes up in pitch until they reach a new tonic. The effect is very powerful when they come back together, and nostalgic.

“Wei-Chieh sets five popular Taiwanese songs as well, but a bit more raw. The songs are recognizable to everyone in Taiwan—I don’t think there’s an American equivalent, maybe something like Sinatra tunes.

“It took a while for us to settle on the fourth quartet,” Lee says. “We could have included any of the Bartók quartets. But people recognize him as someone who took traditions and turned them into something quite different.”

The recording has been supported by multiple commissions, and by a vigorous Kickstarter campaign that raised $15,000 in twelve days. The release “will be available on all the usual channels,” Lee says, and the group will be performing it on tour this summer as well.

The summer also brings the group’s sixth Formosa Chamber Music Festival, a popular music camp that is modeled after famous festivals like Ravinia, Marlboro and Taos. Auditioned students come to Dong Hwa University in eastern Taiwan for almost a month of coaching, rehearsals and performances with Formosa and other guest musicians. The festival is followed by a short tour through Taiwan.

“Nothing like this had ever existed in Taiwan before our festival,” Lee says. “We get a lot of support, and a lot of buzz. It has made the study of chamber music possible for these students”—the age range of fellows runs 13 to 27, and most are conservatory students—“and we’re starting to see the impact already.

“They bring back what they study to their own colleges,” Lee says, “It’s important, because the idea of individual training, and a musical sensibility with an emphasis on discussion—that’s something new to Taiwanese students.”

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