Rockport — Four musicians take the stage. The men wear starched tuxedos, the women formal evening dress. They place their sheet music on the stands — music that is often 200 years old — and being playing for a hushed, well-mannered audience.
Chamber music hasn’t changed for generations. Think that’s true? Examine what the Borromeo String Quartet is doing, and think again.
The ensemble, which makes two appearances at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival during its gala opening weekend, may still play music that’s centuries old — with heavy doses of Bartok, Kilstofte, Schuller and others mixed in — and they may still be inclined toward formal wear onstage. But almost everything else about the group speaks loudly about how chamber music is a breathing, dynamic art form, still generating exciting performances, as well as innovative ways of achieving those performances.
Borromeo’s programming has always been distinctive. They have paired the six Bartok quartets with pieces by Haydn, mixing the inventor of the medium with someone who did his best to change it completely. The group’s work with the Aaron Copland Foundation has provided newly commissioned music with funded repeat performances — something Rockport audiences will experience with Mark Kilstofte’s quartet on Saturday evening. Along the way, they’ve performed new pieces by Golijov, Bermel, Auerbach, Fairouz and many other living composers.
And not only performed them, but captured the concert on video, and are making it available online. Borromeo has created Living Archive, an online source for hundreds of performances, available for free at www.livingarchive.org. There you can listen to and see music from Bach to Tchaikovsky, with performances from around the world, all video recorded by the ensemble.
And their commitment to technology doesn’t end there. One important innovation that makes Borromeo unique among contemporary performers is the use of laptops and digital scores onstage, rather than printed music. When Borromeo takes the stage, they don’t just carry out priceless instruments; they carry out their Macs as well.
“It’s a profound shift,” says first violinist Nicholas Kitchen. We spoke on the phone as Kitchen was just leaving a rehearsal at New England Conservatory, where the group is the resident chamber music ensemble. “A lot of people have asked about it. When you’re dealing with a score 100 percent of the time, it’s totally reasonable. The processes of practicing and studying used to be two different activities; now they are simultaneous.
“I was the first in the group to used a laptop exclusively,” Kitchen says. Now the entire ensemble — Kristopher Tong (violin), Mai Motobuchi (viola) and Yeesun Kim (cello) — is wired. They use Apple computers, although Kitchen jokes that “we haven’t gotten an endorsement deal yet. We’re lucky to have them though. They are great machines, and attractive to look at, which is important onstage.
“We each came about it in our own way,” Kitchen says about the electronic transition. “What’s nice now is that the entire repertory can be recalled onstage. In fact, I keep a flash drive in my violin case that has everything we’ve ever played.”
A printed score will normally only have the parts for that individual instrument, so that the violinists won’t actually be able to see the violist’s or cellist’s notes. It saves paper, and it saves copying. But with electronic versions of the score, every musical nuance is visible to all the players at the same time. And page turning — or as Kitchen calls it “the dramatic element,” when performers must find a suitable pause in their playing to shift pages — is now controlled by a foot pedal.
More importantly, original manuscripts — music in the composer’s own script — are also now easily accessed. “We’ve performed with PDFs of original Haydn manuscripts,” Kitchen says, “which is not only fascinating but beautiful to see. It’s an ability to work with manuscripts that was inconceivable 10 years ago.
“Recently we did a performance of the Mendelssohn octet, with all eight players reading the original version, and we projected it on a screen above the stage so the entire audience could see. And it’s not just these historic works that are interesting, but now a composer can just send us a new PDF of a work with revisions. At this point, it’s actually hard to remember playing from a printed score.”
Borromeo performs on opening night as part of a larger chamber ensemble, playing Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” and Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” On Saturday evening, they perform the Beethoven Op. 18, no. 2 quartet, Kilstofte’s quartet, and are joined by pianist Gilles Vonsattel in the Brahms F minor quintet.