September 28 Borromeo String Quartet


Photo Credit: Eli Akerstein

Photo Credit: Eli Akerstein

Borromeo String Quartet brings the hand of Beethoven to the eyes, ears of Syracuse

Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman joins the celebrated quartet for Mozarts ‘Quintet, K. 581’ and encores the composer’s rarely heard ‘Rondo in A Major’

By David Abrams

Call it Switched-on Beethoven.  The Borromeo String Quartet, which played to a packed house at Saturday’s season-opening Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music concert, served up Beethoven with the aid of four MacBook laptops, a projector, a large screen and digital software that scrolled Beethoven’s Quartet in F-Minor, notated in the composer’s own hand.

The power and electricity, however, came from the players themselves.

The Borromeo Quartet, a staple of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and longtime quartet in residence at The New England Conservatory of Music, has carved a niche for itself as an ensemble willing to use technology to enhance its product.  Whether the bridging of 18th- and 19th-century chamber music with the digital revolution is a genuine improvement or just another a passing fancy, however, remains to be seen.  But for those listeners able to get past the electronic distractions, Saturday’s performance gave credence to Borromeo’s well-deserved reputation as a first-rate string quartet.

Borromeo’s innovative practice of substituting MacBook laptop computers for traditional music stands has its advantages, to be sure.  No sheet music means no page turns — meaning the performers can read off the cumbersome full score (all four parts displayed) and switch pages as often and quickly as necessary through the use of floor-pedals hooked to the laptops’ USB ports.

Still, this digital-age convenience comes at a price.  The open lids of the laptop computers skew the line of sight between performer and listener and obscure a sizeable portion of the performers’ bodies.  Moreover, the brightly lit Apple McIntosh insignia is distracting.  And then there are the unsightly wires hanging from the tops of the stands connecting to the foot-pedals, which further distract from the music-making process.

One of the reasons I prefer chamber music to that of larger ensembles is the greater intimacy in small numbers that helps make the musical experience a shared, hybrid dialogue between performer and listener.  The less clutter separating players and listeners, the stronger the connection between them.  I had to resort to closing my eyes several times in order to achieve this connection, and that’s hardly what live music is all about.  But this having been said, there’s no denying that the level of playing this evening was simply outstanding.

The three-work program got off to a captivating start with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 (“Quartetto Serioso”), which served as the “show and tell” portion of the concert.  Speaking from his chair atop the stage prior to the performance, first violinist Nicholas Kitchen directed the audience’s attention to a large screen occupying stage left that projected the score of Beethoven’s original manuscript in real time as the music travelled across the computer screens sitting on top of each performer’s music stand.

If you think it’s easy to play in this manner, think again.  Beethoven’s manuscript — with its obsessive changes and agonizing re-edits — looks like the scribble your doctor writes on your Rx prescription.  It’s a wonder how these players (none of whom ostensibly are pharmacists) are able to make sense of this scrawl quickly enough to play the correct notes and rhythms.

Kitchen nevertheless defended the practice, explaining the value to Borromeo of playing directly from the source, without edits, during rehearsals.  Still, from the listener’s perspective the projector and screen offered very little in the way of musical enlightenment.  Even for those in attendance who could read music and were sitting close enough to the screen to follow what was going on, the projections provided little value to the listener due to the near-illegibility of the composer’s calligraphy.  Nevertheless, watching Beethoven’s handwritten notes fly across the pages gave listeners like me a warm and cozy feeling that Beethoven was somehow present during this musical experience.  (If so, I sure hope he was able to hear it.)

Dating from 1810, the Quartet No. 11 in F minor is the last of Beethoven’s so-called “middle quartets.”  The heavily dotted rhythmic motifs that dominate the fast movements speak to the composer’s growing anger and frustration over his hearing, which was continuing to deteriorate (in another seven years he would be totally deaf).

Borromeo’s impressive blend of tone was immediately apparent in the angry unison statement that opens the Allegro con brio, and although I would have welcomed more fire and brimstone at the tortuous conclusion of the movement, the ensemble’s well rounded and balanced sonority in the softer and gentler sections — where no instrument obtrusively assumed the role of  “soloist” — was most satisfying.

The slow movement was sensitively delivered, and the relentless dotted-rhythms that drive the opening of the magnificent third movement to a wild frenzy came crashing through with great enthusiasm — in spite of the ensemble’s tendency to rush off the ties (caught up, no doubt, in the passion of the moment).  Sensitivity in the slow introduction to the final movement was especially lovely, with solid blending of inner parts (second violin and viola).

The Dvořák String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major that followed is an amiable, ethnocentric work that delights the ear with its Bohemian flavored melodies that flow almost unabatedly from the composer’s pen.  Borromeo captured the gentle tenderness of the lengthy opening (Allegro ma non troppo) movement, and the dance-like sections weaving in out of the musical fabric came off cheerfully and playfully.

The weightiest movement in this work may well be the second movement Dumka (a Slavic folksong that alternates in character between sadness and joy).  The slow, mournful melody passing from violin to viola sang ever so sweetly above the cello’s guitar-like strumming on a G-minor chord — producing a personal Kodak moment that will remain etched into my musical memory for a long time to come.  Borromeo put its collective soul into the music making here, playing off one-another with great warmth and sensitivity.  The jolly Bohemian dance that alternates with the elegiac theme was consistently, and irresistibly, buoyant.

Kitchen’s abilities as the ensemble’s first violinist was especially evident during the relaxed third movement Romanza, which he phrased with great affection and tender poignancy.  Borromeo was suitably jolly in the dance-like Finale, and its peppy ensemble interplay helped make this performance a richly rewarding listening experience.

Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, a perennial favorite among concert audiences, joined Borromeo for the concluding work on the program, Mozart’s gentle and ever so graceful Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.

At 71 years of age, Stoltzman has lost none of the charm and charisma (or boyish looks) that catapulted him to popularity as a founding member, along with Peter Serkin, of the Tashi Quartet.  Still, the uneven passagework in the opening 16th-note passages of the first (Allegro) movement suggests that the clarinet superstar may have lost a degree of his usually reliable fingerwork, technique and polish.  Moreover, his articulated passages throughout the work revealed finger-tongue coordination problems endemic to wind players that you don’t expect to hear from players of this caliber.

The most successful of the four movements was the Menuetto, for which Stoltzman found just the right relaxed tempo for such a minuet, and his improvised embellishments during the repeated sections of the second trio came off with a daring, yet controlled, sense of adventure.  I was particularly impressed with Kitchen, who mirrored Stoltzman’s improvisations almost note for note — even though it’s unlikely that Stoltzman played these embellishments the same way during rehearsal.  Stoltzman continued to embellish during the final movement’s variations, although here the improvisations grew even more “daring” — until he distanced himself almost completely from accepted stylistic conventions of 18th-century Viennese classicism.

When the work ended the audience afforded Stoltzman an immediate standing ovation, along with enthusiastic shouts of approval.  Whether they were acknowledging the clarinetist’s level of artistry, or simply his reputation, is anyone’s guess.

Borromeo and Stoltzman returned to the stage for an encore that Kitchen, in a second talk from the stage, described as the unfinished Rondo in A Major for clarinet and string quartet.  The piece, which Mozart based on his tenor aria (Ah lo veggio) from Cosi fan tutte, resurfaced only recently (as K. 581a) after music scholar-performer Robert Levin got his hands on Mozart’s sketches and completed what the composer had begun then soon discarded.

Kitchen also expressed his belief that the present encore would be, according to his count, only the third public performance of this work — a questionable assertion indeed, considering that the piece can be found posted (from a live performance) on YouTube.  The work was also recorded last November, and has been widely available in this country (and elsewhere) since then.

But whatever its history, the Rondo in A is a charming work with a memorable refrain that lingers in the musical memory long after the piece has ended.  Indeed, Stoltzman and company seemed to enjoy every measure of the work — whether penned by Mozart or Levin.

Details Box:
What: Borromeo Quartet, with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman
Who: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music
Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse
When: September 28, 2013
Time: Two and one-half hours, including encore 
Next concert: Trio con Brio Copenhagen, Saturday, October 19
Tickets:  Regular $20; senior $15; student $10 (available at door)