Call it String Theory

It's uncontested aural ecstasy at the behest of the BSQ's peerless bows

In 1989 a group of young musicians at the prestigious Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, virtuosos all, had a dilemma; so strong was their desire to perform, that there simply weren't enough festivals to accommodate them. It was then that a sage professor offered a solution. "Why strand yourselves at the mercy of festivals?" he said. "Why not form your own ensemble and perform at will?" And so the Borromeo String Quartet (BSQ) was born.

"The very first concert we played was a mile or so from the Borromeo Islands, just south of Switzerland," says founding and current BSQ member Nicholas Kitchen. "They're a beautiful set of islands, very striking."

Nineteen years later, the BSQ is on a very short list of coveted quartets worldwide. Based in Boston, the house quartet, if you will, at the New England Conservatory of Music, the BSQ is nonpareil in its technical acumen, intensity and thorough emotional exploration of its repertoire. Performing more than 100 concerts across three continents each year, its shelves sag under the weight of accolades and awards, too many in number to list here, and its penchant for exquisitely rendering the string cycles of classic and contemporary composers alike--Beethoven, Brahms, Schoenberg, Mozart, Haydn, Bartók and most recently, Shostakovich--has left critics collectively beside themselves, capable only of issuing staggering praise.

But what's missing from the BSQ's descriptions, its histories and pinnacle encomiums is an explanation of how, as in how does the quartet uncover in each composer what Kitchen calls a "characteristic of genius" and how then does it articulate each piece to achieve the flawless equilibrium of precision, passion and accessibility for which the BSQ is so ubiquitously celebrated.

In an exclusive interview with GT, Kitchen, soft-spoken and insightful, reveals the strategies behind this intellectual endeavor, the magic that lives in every live performance, and classical music's ultimate contribution to a well-rounded soul.

When the BSQ picks up a piece, what lies beyond its first impressions?

The difference between knowing a piece of music at first and knowing it quite deeply is a really fascinating difference in terms of what happens as you get closer to these pieces, the new levels that you discover and the new perspective that it gives you. A lot of people might experience that when they read a Shakespeare play very closely. You certainly realize that something great is going on right when you read it, but other parts might not have become clear yet. Then you spend more time with it, you go deeper into it and it becomes greater and greater. That's definitely what happens when you're dealing with the music of these really powerful composers.

ImageHow do you recognize in a composer what you termed a "characteristic of genius"?

There's a strong sense that all good music has this mixture of making us feel we can understand it, but also that we're discovering something new about it. We want to make the audience feel that about Beethoven, but we want them to also feel that about music they might not have ever heard. Every composer has their own voice and we try to be true to that voice, but good composers also share a lot in common in the combination of what's predictable and what's unpredictable, what's sort of discordant and challenging and what's consoling and reassuring. People are going to hear all those characteristics in the Jalbert and the Beethoven and the Schumann as well, but each one in a different way.

Since 2003, the BSQ has made available high-quality recordings of nearly every performance in what it calls its Living Archive--why has this been important?

What we're looking for in performance is that ability for the music to really be alive and allow people to hear the volatile and exciting nature of what's going on inside that music ... There's a kind of magic that happens in each performance. They're all different and we have a lot of faith that it's interesting for someone to either relive that concert they attended or study the music through a live performance.

In addition to your role as a performer, you've been extremely dedicated as a music educator ...

I get very depressed to hear how quickly music is cut from schools. To just contemplate what it means to successfully put together a beautiful piece of music--it's demanding. You have to have extremely fine motor coordination that is rhythmically controlled enough that it can be synchronized with multiple other players, and once you achieve that technical feat, your goals are to sense an emotional drive behind the work and what it's expressing. Those things are encouraging--probing intelligence on many levels--and also require a sense of judgment and taste and analysis of your success and failure in order to understand what's necessary to improve, and what makes a really great performance. When you consider those mental demands together and particularly that they can't just happen in a timeframe that is convenient, that they have to happen within a very fast and extremely controlled set of interrelationships, it's just fantastic what you're teaching someone to do by allowing them to learn how to integrate music with other people ... It's a great pity when that aspect is not understood or appreciated.

The Borromeo String Quartet performs as part of the UCSC Arts & Lectures Series at 8 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 24 at Holy Cross Church, 126 High Street in Santa Cruz. For information, call 459-2159. Tickets are $10 to $30.
Amanda Martinez, Good Times Weekly, Santa Cruz
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