he laptops form a circle onstage, each MacBook mounted on an adjustable stand and trailing an impressive tangle of wires. Yet the musicians who take the stage belong not to an electropop group but to the Borromeo String Quartet, an ensemble known for its contemporary approach to classical masterpieces. A very contemporary approach, in fact: in place of printed sheet music, the quartet's players perform from scores uploaded onto laptops. The Borromeo's use of computers began with first violinist Nicholas Kitchen's desire to read from a full score rather than an individual part – a difficult task with a long and unwieldy paper score, but an easily manageable one with a MacBook outfitted with a special pedal for turning pages. While Kitchen's colleagues expressed some initial resistance – in an interview with Daniel J. Wakin of the New York Times, Kristopher Tong, the group's second violinist, recalled worries that playing off a full score would weaken listening within the ensemble – all four players now use the laptops, which enable them to play directly from scanned manuscripts often penned by the composer's own hand.
For their Jan. 21 performance at Smith's Sweeney Concert Hall presented as part of the Music in Deerfield concert series, the Borromeo opened with J.S. Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor for Organ, BWV 582, arranged for string quartet by Kitchen. While the group sounded a bit thin at times, the music never quite achieving the wall-like force this piece has when played on the organ, the players tackled each of the work's twenty variations with a clarity and restraint particularly effective in the piece's densest contrapuntal passages.
Electronics took on renewed importance in the group's performance of Steve Reich's Different Trains (1988), a piece for string quartet and tape. Reich's electronic track blends fragments of interviews, sirens and mechanical train sounds into an accompanying aural collage that links his childhood memories of train journeys in the 1940s with reflections on WWII concentration camp transport trains. Using light amplification, the live ensemble weaves in and out of the tapestry of sound and place created by the electronics and a pre-recorded string quartet – sounds here elegantly supplied by the Kronos quartet.
Under the Borromeo's bows, Reich's repeated motifs seemed to build into shifting modules of colors and sonorities; in the first movement, cello and second violin wails created a bright and expansive American sound, while in the second movement (II. Europe – During the War), the ensemble darkened, shaping the music's oscillating passages into an atmosphere of palpable anxiety. Dmitri Murrath, who subbed for violist Mai Motobuchi, deserves special commendation for his confident and rich tone, which added warmth to the pre-recorded voices that the viola echoes as a second, simultaneous "vocalist."
The quartet returned to classical repertoire with their final piece, Franz Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810, "Der Tod und das Mädchen" ("Death and the Maiden"). During the first two movements of the work, Kitchen projected his score stage for the audience to follow along with. Schubert's scratchy handwriting and notational shortcuts made reading the notes from the balcony difficult, but seeing the original creation onstage was oddly moving.
Like many romantic works, "Death and the Maiden" turns on contrast; the quartet's savage opening bars give way to ones the Borromeo expressed with great delicacy and sweetness. As a whole, the group favored a less romantic approach than many other ensembles, using a more detached bowing that gave piano sections a crystalline quality and humming intensity. This interpretative choice sometimes proved less effective in louder sections, where the music often seemed to crave longer phrases and a more orchestral sound.
Nonetheless, it was a powerful and technically impressive performance – especially in the final section of the fourth movement, where the music builds to almost unplayable frenzy. The piece draws its "Death and the Maiden" nickname from a poem Schubert first set for voice (and uses here as a theme in the quartet's second movement); the music is ferocious in its confrontation of darkness and death, and the final movement ends with exuberance that verges on madness.
With the Borromeo's vigorous interpretation, I almost expected the laptops to spark and explode during the piece's concluding bars – a final burst of creativity against consuming darkness.