PORTSMOUTH, R.I. — Young pianist Hsin-Chiao Liao played “Clair de Lune” — “Moonlight” — by French composer Claude Debussy before an audience of close to 180 students at The Pennfield School on Wednesday and asked them what they were thinking about as they listened.
“I was quite amazed with the answers they gave me,” Liao said afterwards. “Some of the girls said they thought of snow, stars, flowing water … It’s an impressionist piece and those are actually the pictures in my mind when I play it. They are sensitive to the music, which is quite nice.”
Liao and the three other musicians in the quartet that played at Pennfield met at the Heifetz International Music Institute, a six-week summer intensive program for outstanding musicians ages 14 to 25 at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va. Heifetz on Tour, a subsidiary program, sends alumni of the institute to various locations on the East Coast for performance and outreach programs.
In October 2013, the Jamestown Arts Center formed a partnership with Heifetz to bring the musicians to this area, said Alicia Bell, the center’s education coordinator, who accompanied the students to Pennfield. Since then, they have been coming here for a week in the spring and fall each year.
Liao is from Taiwan and arrived in the U.S. four years ago to study music. The violinist in the group, Chloé Kiffer, is from Paris and also arrived here four years ago. Both of them are working on doctorate degrees in music performance at Stony Brook University on Long Island.
Erica Gailing of New York City plays the viola in the group and is working on her master’s degree at The Juilliard School, a performing arts conservatory in Manhattan. Mo Mo, from Beijing, plays the cello and is a student at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
Besides playing as a quartet, the musicians occasionally played in duets or solo, and talked to the young students about expressing emotions in music and learning how to communicate with one another while playing in groups. They talked about their own experiences with music.
“I’ve been playing the violin since I was 5 years old,” Kiffer said. “When I was young, I played a half hour to an hour every day. Now I’m an adult and I practice five hours a day.”
She first participated in the Heifetz summer program two years ago.
“It was the best summer of my life,” she said. “We played every day.”
Mo, who has been in this country for seven years, said he started playing the piano when he was 2 or 3 years old, but then he saw the famous Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello.
“I thought that was cool,” he said. “I started on the cello when I was 6.”
Gailing has taken a more indirect route to her career in music.
“I started out on the violin and then I moved to the viola,” she said. “I started out in college as a political science major and now I’m at Juilliard.”
As students gathered in Pennfield’s gymnasium for the performance and tutorial, there was a lot of anticipation in the room.
“I’m excited,” said Rebecca Brazil, who teaches general music, chorus and English as a Second Language at Pennfield. “I love hearing good music and seeing it up close like this. It’s awesome and a great opportunity for the kids to see what it is like in a small ensemble. I talk to chorus students about how to interact with each other when they perform.”
While the students were impressed by the masterful performances, the musicians were impressed by the musical knowledge of the students.
For example, Kiffer and Gailing played a duet on the violin and viola, and then Mo played the same piece on the cello.
They asked the students how what they heard was different. The students answered quickly: Mo Mo’s piece was an octave lower.
That and other quick answers got surprised looks from the musicians.
“I loved these kids,” Gailing said after the performance. “They were so knowledgeable.”
The Heifetz musicians played a varied repertoire that included Bach’s First Prelude, a tango called “Por Una Cabeza,” Handel’s “Passacaglia” and the traditional “Greensleeves.”
Each piece they played garnered enthusiastic applause from the students. After the performance, the students left quickly, but they had some comments on their way to class.
“It was great to see them playing the different instruments,” said Mia Phelps, 9, a fourth-grader. “I liked the piano best because that’s what I play.”
“I especially liked when they played ‘Bittersweet Symphony,’” she said.
Sophia Karousos, 9, a fourth-grader, was impressed when Mo asked if the students could recognize the upcoming piece and started playing the Harry Potter theme from the movies. She and many other students immediately raised their hands.
“I also liked when they played the OneRepublic song,” she said.
“I thought it was terrific,” said Kristin Emory, the school’s admissions director. “Now I feel so relaxed. When we have a chance to bring in the arts, we do.”
She said Head of School Rob Kelley had heard Heifetz on Tour, which always features different musicians, in another setting and arranged to have them come to Pennfield for the first time on Wednesday.
The musicians have had a busy week. They arrived on Sunday, got together at the Jamestown Arts Center and then played at Melrose and Lawn Avenue schools in Jamestown on Monday. They played at Exeter-West Greenwich Junior High School on Tuesday and will play at J.M. Walsh High School for the Fine and Performing Arts in Pawtucket today. During the week, they also are performing in three private homes, two in Jamestown and one in Providence.
Friday is a rehearsal day and they will have a rehearsal open to the public at the Jamestown Arts Center on Saturday, beginning at 11 a.m. This is a free family event.
The main concert takes place at the Jamestown Arts Center on Saturday beginning at 7:30 p.m. Violinist Andy Simionescu, a member of the Heifetz Institute faculty and director of the Performers of Westchester, will join the performance.