The late Philadelphia artist Sam Maitin, who encouraged Barbara Beitel to launch a chamber music festival in Cape May 10 years ago, knew that summer at the Shore needn't just be sun and sand. The relaxed atmosphere can be salutary for taking in art, even of the high variety. Maitin exhibited his paintings in such rarified spaces as New York's Museum of Modern Art and London's Tate Gallery, but he grew up bicycling from Wildwood to Cape May in the summers. He liked to say that "people with sand in their toes" were bound to be more down to earth and receptive, artists and audience alike.
This seemed to be the case Wednesday, when the Borromeo String Quartet wowed a crowd at the intimate, acoustically ideal United Methodist Church, a quaint old clapboard structure near downtown Cape May. The audience, locals and visitors from teens to retirees, was piqued by leader Nicholas Kitchen's informal preambles and then left abuzz by the group's brilliant playing.
The Borromeo, resident quartet at the New England Conservatory of Music, is one of the country's up-and-coming ensembles. Violinist Kitchen and his partners -- violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim -- displayed impeccable intonation and cohesion, but mere technicians they are not. The string quartet literature doesn't have to be abstruse and arid, and the Borromeo proved the point in Haydn, Shostakovich and an ideally passionate performance of Beethoven's "Razumovsky" Quartet No. 2.
The three big "Razumovsky" quartets -- the nickname coming from the Russian ambassador to Vienna who commissioned them -- have an almost symphonic ambition, with Kitchen describing No. 2's first movement as "like a quivering elephant -- huge and full of nervous energy." The Borromeo struck that right note of tension, and after a deep breath, managed a different intensity in the hymn-like Adagio, as Kitchen's arabesques embroidered the music like a blood-red thread. The group could also balance shadow with light, giving a dashing account of the finale and sending listeners into the seaside air with something to talk about.