Articles & Reviews

Borromeo String Quartet: Plugged-in Mendelssohn

Technology has changed the scope of our world. New advances are catapulting us forward, yet the Borromeo String Quartet is using this race into the future to take us closer to our past.

“There are many surprises when playing from a computer, because what the computer offers as an opportunity is a natural environment for viewing a full score,” violinist Nicholas Kitchen explains of the commitment the Quartet made in 2003 to use laptops during performances to view the score. In this way they can see the complete score, instead of just their part, while not being hampered by page turns. The quartet has even customized a foot pedal to optimize the page-turning process.

“In this setting, everyone who is participating can be looking at the score, and score study becomes a communal exchange of information. This is really a complete transformation of the working process. It means that everything in the music can be seen by everybody who’s playing, and that changes the nature of your discussion.”

The act of reading the score electronically offers additional benefits. In its upcoming concert, the Quartet will read Mendelssohn’s handwritten score of his Octet, which was made available by the Library of Congress. “What happens is, you can not only be seeing the whole score, but seeing it in the version that the composer originally wrote out.”

When Kitchen had the opportunity to study Mendelssohn’s original manuscript, he quickly discovered that the piece differed tremendously from the version that now takes the concert stage. “The version we know is from seven years after the original manuscript,” he notes, “and it represents Mendelssohn’s revision of his original idea.... There’s probably about 100 bars of music — a really significant section of music — which are totally different than the published version. You can understand that what he was basically doing was cutting it down, making it more tightly constructed, and in some places slightly simplified, from his more exuberant 16-year-old version.”

“You can be seeing the whole score in the version that the composer originally wrote out.” – Nicholas Kitchen

The Quartet will share the youthful exuberance of this experience with the Young Chamber Musicians. “What’s been great,” Kitchen remarks, “is to let them in on this technique of dealing with music which opens doors…. It also puts them with the fundamental reality that it’s not necessarily such a simple or clean process to create a masterpiece. As brilliant as Mendelssohn is, he has to push himself, and he is constantly pushing himself to search for the way to make this the greatest piece he can make it.”

This unique experience will be shared with the audience as the score is projected on a large screen during the performance. “It is such a stimulating work, and this allows them to see it from a new angle — especially seeing the absolutely beautiful writing of Mendelssohn. It’s kind of a work of art on its own.”

Kitchen’s excitement for the work will surely trickle down to the audience, along with the exuberant music. “It’s inspiring to feel like you are a part of that moment back in 1825 when this piece came into being.”