On Bastille Day 2011, in an idyllic New England coastal village, on a picture-perfect summer evening featuring a refreshing bit of chill in the air and a nearly full Buck Moon, the Borromeo String Quartet offered a wide-ranging concert as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival.
The RCMF, celebrating its thirtieth season, moved into a new home just over a year ago when it migrated from the Rockport Art Association building to the freshly minted Shalin Liu Performance Center. (Ms. Liu is a Taiwanese philanthropist now living in the Boston area.) The SLPC, erected on the site of the 1845 Haskins mercantile building, features a pleasantly quaint Second Empire exterior and a posilutely stunning interior. Walls of textured granite brick and a balcony of interwoven wooden slats frame a massive window behind the stage overlooking Rockport Harbor. The overall effect is warm and intimate, with the natural materials reflecting both sound waves and rocky shore, and the space still retaining a tangy whiff of that “new car” fragrance. It truly looks too magical to be real. Actually, this architectural gem is quite evocative of Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall (albeit with a capacity of just 330), which should fail to surprise, given that they share the same architectural and acoustical parents, Epstein Joslin Architects and Kirkegaard Associates, respectively. Hands down a multifaceted aesthetic triumph.
Speaking of multifaceted aesthetic triumphs, the Borromeo String Quartet is at the top of its game. Formed over two decades ago and still consisting of two of the original members (husband and wife Nicholas Kitchen, violin and Yeesun Kim, cello), the eight-handed, 40-fingered Borromonster is an elegant beast that breathes musical fire. Despite the group’s longevity, these musicians are decidedly twenty-first century and were early adopters of digital musical scores. Alas, there was an unfortunate drawback in this particular venue: screen glare necessitated the drawing of the woven wooden screen behind the stage prior to the start of the concert, depriving the audience of a glowing sunset over the harbor. Pity! Someone definitely needs to suggest anti-glare filters for the group’s computer monitors. (Trivia corner: In case you’re wondering, the Borromeos take their name from the Borromean islands in Lago Maggiore, northern Italy, where they performed their inaugural concerts.)
Once the capacity crowd had settled into the cushy-comfy seats, the dulcet sounds of Mozart wafted through the auditorium as the Borromeos plunged in to his String Quartet No. 18 in A Major (“The Drum”). The penultimate in a set of a half-dozen quartets dedicated to his friend Franz Joseph Haydn, this is music at the pinnacle of the Classical period. Apparently, despite his reputation for tossing off fully formed works, Wolfgang struggled to craft these quartets ‘just so’ for the highly respected Haydn, and the original manuscripts contain numerous uncharacteristic strikethroughs and rewrites. We were thus treated to music penned by a composer at the peak of his creative powers and recreated by instrumentalists at the apex of their craft. Light, airy melodies soared through the lofty space as we were enveloped by this gentle, refined, exquisitely woven aural tapestry. Subjects passed seamlessly from player to player in a crystal-clear dialogue that sharply delineated the inner structures of the music. Violinist Kitchen was as rock-solid as the coastline, playing with Federer-like coolness. Meanwhile, his instrumental counterpart Kristopher Tong sawed with great gusto and animation. Stoic, relatively undemonstrative Yeesun Kim effectively transmogrified her cello into a drum during the third movement Andante (from which the piece obviously derives its sobriquet), and sweet-faced violist Mai Motobuchi tenderly cradled her instrument while spinning flawless melodic accompaniment.
And then everything changed. With a click of a mouse, we were hurtled from 1785 to 2005, and the sweet melodies of Mozart were replaced by the tart imaginings of contemporary American composer Daniel Brewbaker. Quite the juxtaposition, as the musical palette went from NECCO pastels to graffiti fluorescence. As explained in illuminating introductory remarks by Kitchen, Brewbaker’s Dance for My Fathers (String Quartet No. 2), commissioned for Juilliard’s centennial, is a four-movement homage to a selection of the composer’s mentors, musicians Roger Sessions, Gordon Binkerd, and Vincent Persichetti, as well as Brewbaker’s own father.
Overall, this was the sort of music that was challenging for both performers and listeners, with angular melodic lines and jarring harmonies. “Roger’s Session” was tense and high-strung, featuring scampering pizzicato riffs; “Gordon’s Garden” sounded like a garden of thistles; the third movement tribute to the elder Brewbaker was somewhat mellower and pensively nostalgic; the final movement tribute to Persichetti was darkly frenetic and hyper-demanding. Surprised the performers’ instruments didn’t burst aflame as they blazed through this edgy work. Their playing was virtually flawless, with nary a stray squeak. Consistently musical, consistently passionate, consistently precise, they played as one. This is especially impressive given their clearly distinct musical personalities: suave Kitchen, energetic Tong, motherly Motobuchi, steady Kim.
Appropriately enough on this Bastille Day, the final work of the evening was Frenchman Claude Debussy’s single contribution to the string quartet genre, his Opus 10. Written in 1894, when the composer was in his early 30s, this is one of the few works to which Debussy ascribed a tonal key (g minor). Shimmery, noble, festooned with whole-tone and pentatonic scales, this piece featured an entirely new and rich soundscape consisting of shifting colors and glittering waves of emotion as the composer forged a new path. Once again, the Borromeos were more than up to the task as they swayed rhythmically in a complex dance during which the instruments became extensions of themselves.
Actually, after hearing the Borromeos deftly handle each of these disparate compositions with grace and seemingly effortless precision, I came to the conclusion that they could make Colonoscopy in Z minor by “Weird Al” Jankovic sound compelling. There’s seemingly nothing in the string quartet repertoire that is beyond their wide-ranging grasp. And so the evening, aesthetically pleasing in every way, drew to a close. If you’ve yet to experience the passionate elegance of the Borromeo String Quartet, what are you waiting for?
And the new home of Rockport Music is not to be missed. The Shalin Liu Performance Center features events year-round. Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: http://www.cobaltocumulus.com. He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.