Computers help quartet find music, turn pages on stage

For the celebrated Borromeo String Quartet, the future is now.

It all started when quartet violinist Nicholas Kitchen was looking at Mendelssohn's manuscript of his string octet in the Library of Congress' treasure vault. Kitchen is a frequent visitor there because he plays on a violin on loan from the library's collection, and the octet was a piece the Borromeo wanted to play on its concert Sunday as part of the Renaissance Musical Arts series.
The quartet, named for Italy's Borromeo Islands, where the group first performed, includes founders Kitchen and cellist Yeesun Kim, violinist Kristopher Tong (2006) and violist Mai Motobuchi (2000).

"I realized the manuscript was not the same. One hundred bars were changed by Mendelssohn before it was published," Kitchen said last month from Colorado, where the quartet was on tour. "He'd written it in 1825 at 16 and presented it at his teacher's birthday party. It was well-known right away. But seven years later, he went to [music publishing house] Breitkopf & Hartel and revised it."

Because there were no parts for the original version, Kitchen received permission to make the parts, but that would take time.

Then he thought about using computers, he said.

"We were inspired by Chris O'Riley," Kitchen said.

As audience members noted when pianist O'Riley recently performed at The Egg, he read his charts from a laptop propped up where the piano's music stand usually is. To turn the pages, O'Riley hit a foot pedal that was hooked up to the computer's USB port.

Because the Mendelssohn manuscript is on a PDF file, it can be downloaded onto any computer. Even better, through the use of the Acrobat Professional program, musicians can make markings on the music and even change the zoom feature. The Borromeo decided to give it a try. Each read off a computer that sat on a specially made stand. Instead of reading each individual part, the musicians read the actual score, page by page, written in Mendelssohn's own hand.

"It was a revelation for us in terms of rehearsal," Kitchen said, adding that Mendelssohn wrote with a beautiful penmanship and made few mistakes.

Since then, the Borromeo only works off computers. During performances, a power cord is hidden under "a very pretty blanket" obtained when the quartet played for the King of Thailand, he said.


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