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A young quartet, a witty pianist, and the music that made Tolstoy weep

On Saturday evening, the Viano String Quartet returned to Rockport for a performance with pianist Marc-André Hamelin.

The Viano String Quartet and pianist Marc-André Hamelin performing on Saturday evening at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.Nate Weaver/Rockport Music

The Viano String Quartet, which stopped by the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on Saturday evening, chose its unusual name to make a point about its own approach to ensemble playing: four separate voices aspiring to blend into a single meta-instrument. Accordingly, the name Viano is a portmanteau of their own invention, replacing the “P” in piano with the “V” from all three instruments represented in a string quartet: violin, viola, and violoncello.

And as Saturday’s program demonstrated within a few short minutes, this talented young group comes by its name honestly. Formed in 2015 when its players were all students at the Colburn Conservatory in Los Angeles, the Viano quickly notched a number of competition victories and have since been on a sharply ascending professional flight path. It’s not hard to see why. They do indeed play with a rare unity of intention and a clearly profiled collective voice, one that blends virtuosity and visceral expression in a way that produces a distinct ensemble personality.


The evening opened with Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s First Quartet. In a less dynamic performance, this particular music can feel overly indebted to its European models — think Bartok on the estancia, with a few splashes from Ravel on the Río de la Plata. But on this occasion, the Viano Quartet, charismatically led by Hao Zhou on first violin, attacked the music with such coiled intensity and unchecked vehemence that one stopped listening for influences and just hung on for the thrill of the ride.

Boston’s own Marc-André Hamelin was on hand to join at the keyboard for the second selection, his own composition entitled “Nowhere Fast.” It presents the pianist at his most sly and impish, seemingly poking fun at the conventions of the Romantic piano quintet literature while also reveling in them. The strings get a solo workout before the piano joins in. The mood turns serious (or faux-serious) midway through, and the witty ending clearly hit its market on Saturday, drawing laughs from the Rockport crowd.


After intermission, the parties reunited for Dvorak’s much-loved Piano Quintet No. 2. Cellist Tate Zawadiuk’s sensitively tended opening solo set the tone for the quicksilver first movement, and the Viano played up the dramatic contrasts to maximum effect, making particularly forceful use of the score’s folk-inflected rhythmic energy. For his part, Hamelin maintained a vibrant presence at the keyboard throughout.

The Viano violinists switch off on first violin, and Lucy Wang was excellent from the first chair in the Dvorak and in the ensemble’s encore, the Andante Cantabile from Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1. This is a movement that once made Tolstoy weep, and the Viano offered a touchingly guileless account, true to the music’s elusive blend of wistful beauty and sadness.

All told, it was an impressive outing. Many young quartets learn to express themselves eloquently, but this one, it is clear, also has something to say.


With Marc-André Hamelin, pianist

Rockport Chamber Music Festival

At Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, June 25

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeremy.eichler@globe.com, or follow him on Twitter @Jeremy_Eichler.