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Borromeo knows the score: Using new technology, quartet delves into the secrets

The Borromeo String Quartet’s first violinist, Nicholas Kitchen, likes to see the big picture. But for many of his years as a musician, he was frustrated.

“The beauty of classical music is a great composer makes music that’s both instinctive and simple, and ingenious and complicated, all at the same time,” Kitchen said. “When we study the works, we want to learn all the details, and that involves reading the complete score.

“But if you have an orchestral score, you have this very thick book that has all the parts. For a violinist to try to play from that would be ridiculous because there would be hundreds and hundreds of page turns.”

Enter the computer, the laptop and the foot pedal.

The first thing you’ll notice about the Borromeo when it performs Beethoven on Sunday at SummerFest is that the musicians don’t use printed music; they have the entire score on laptops and “turn pages” with a foot pedal.

“In 2007, I saw some pianists using a foot pedal and I thought, this just solves the problem with reading from the score,” Kitchen said. “Within a short time, our group had committed to always playing from the complete score, and the method to do that was the computer.”

As it turned out, the computer was not just a convenience in performance; it transformed the way the group approached the music, especially in rehearsal. Everyone could see the big picture.

“As you try to figure out how to better do a passage, every member of the group is looking at all the information that goes into that passage,” Kitchen said. “What happens is you sort of enter a kind of communal idea building, where everybody is seeing different things in the multiple elements.

“With (printed, individual) parts, of course we try to imagine what the other parts are, and you get pretty good at it, but that’s totally different from reading the complete blueprint that includes everything there is to consider.”

But Kitchen and the Borromeo took it one step further: For some of Beethoven’s quartets, including the Op. 130 and the Op. 133 (“Grosse Fuge”), which they’ll perform Sunday, they will be playing from facsimiles of the original manuscript, reproduced on their laptops.

“I love playing from manuscripts,” Kitchen said. “I can tell you that Beethoven’s personal interaction with the page results in a completely different system than what we see in printed music.

“Instead of nine dynamics, there are 20 dynamics, and instead of one or two types of staccato, there are four types of staccato. And what it means is it gives you a whole different set of things to consider.”

Kitchen is exploring the possibility of performing other composers, including Shostakovich (which they’ll play Aug. 21-23 at SummerFest), from scans of manuscripts. He’s mastered the technology, even to the point of building his own foot pedals.

“I like to be able to fix them and do whatever I need to do,” he said. “I like to know how they work.”

Just like the music.

By James ChuteSan Diego Union Tribune