Articles & Reviews

Beethoven on Parade

Movies have subtitles and operas have supertitles, but the Borromeo String Quartet has metatitles--titles so substantial that they replicate the entire performance, just within sight of the actual performers. Instead of words, the “metatitles” (i.e., the musical score projected on a screen) contain the actual notes the musicians are playing, allowing music readers to “follow along in the score” as the performance unfolds.

Following along in the score is something that music aficionados sometimes do while listening to recordings on their home stereo systems; but following along during an actual performance is an entirely different matter. Are you supposed to look at the score, or at the players? Which one is more worthy of your attention? Does the experience heighten your appreciation of the music, or is it just a gimmick?

Answers to those questions will probably vary among audience members, but for me the experience was by turns educational, revelatory and distracting. At their performance in Occidental on March 31, the Borromeo played the first half without metatitles but spent the entirety of the second in the shadow of the musical score.

First things first. “At rise,” as they say in the theater, the stage contained the standard four chairs and four music stands of a string quartet performance. Instead of sheet music, however, the stands held Macbook Pro laptop computers, with the iconic apples shining through their backs. To the right of the chairs and stands hung a classroom-sized movie screen, maybe 10 feet wide and six feet tall. At the back of the small auditorium, a digital projector stood ready to project images on the screen.

When the Borromeo settled into their chairs, yet another innovation leaped into view. The violist, who usually sits on the right, with f-holes facing the back of the stage, was positioned next to the first violinist, with f-holes facing the audience. Violists in orchestras and chamber ensembles have long pined for this prominent placement, so here it was at last. Meanwhile, the second violinist cheerfully occupied the violist’s spot on the far right of the quartet.

The affable first violinist, Nicholas Kitchen, said a few words about the unusual setup, and then the quartet launched into a transcription of the fugue in C-sharp minor from Book 1 of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” At first glance, transcriptions of four-part keyboard fugues seem like a natural for string quartets, but appearances are deceiving. The lines, after all, were originally written for keyboards, not string instruments, and in this performance, they often sounded forced and artificial. The minimal use of vibrato and other string techniques only heightened the artificial feel.

Matters took a turn for the worse in the next transcription, of Bach’s “St. Anne” fugue for organ. Here the pedal points and vast array of organ stops were sorely missed. In a “battle of the bands,” there’s no way a string quartet can match the sonic thunder of an organ, so why bother?

The next offering was more suited for the musicians at hand, being an actual string quartet--the String Quartet No. 2, by the contemporary American composer Stephen Jaffe, subtitled “Aeolian and Sylvan Figures.” As implied by the title, the five-movement work was full of the sounds of wind, trees, birds and other pastoral delights. Much of the writing seemed intended to approximate sounds of the natural world, from the “sylvan figures” of the first movement, to the “scherzino chickadee,” to the “push me pull you” suggestiveness of the last.

Jaffe’s music is quite melodic and playful, with many inventive turns of phrase and a wide sonic palette. Harmonics in particular gave the quartet an ethereal feel, although more solidity in the structure might have benefited the work as a whole.

During intermission, the full house milled about the snack bar and the adjacent gallery, which featured paintings of fools, in anticipation of Occidental’s annual April Fool’s Day parade.

The metatitles were finally unveiled in the second half, along with an engrossing introduction from Kitchen, who explained that the group had downloaded the scanned manuscript of Beethoven’s third Razumovsky quartet (Op. 59, No. 3) from the IMSLP website. The manuscript is to a standard performance score what a handwritten draft is to a published book. In other words, it’s a mess.

Kitchen acknowledged the difficulties of reading the manuscript but said those were more than balanced by the revelations, including Beethoven’s edits, erasures, false starts and the like. Kitchen made it clear that what the audience was seeing on the screen was exactly the same image displayed on the quartet’s computers. The final trick in this technological marvel was that Kitchen turned “pages” by pressing a foot pedal.

When the Borromeo finally got down to playing the first movement, my eyes were glued to the screen. Following along was difficult at first, but I soon got the hang of it and found myself thunderstruck by the true technological marvel on display--the notion that Beethoven or some other musical genius can hear sounds in his head and set them to paper with a few strokes of a pen. Moreover, the notes coming out of the adjacent instruments matched the score perfectly, with nary an error.

During the second movement, I alternated between the score and the Borromeo, finally settling on the latter, whose performance invested the score with palpable drama. The movement, a gracious minuet, is all about “subito forte,” moments where the volume suddenly swells and then reverts to quietude. The Borromeo played these with breathtaking intensity.

The third movement was fast, but the fourth set land-speed records. It was an utterly gripping performance, from the hushed but frenetic viola entrance, through the long crescendo, to the triumphant fortissimo. Through it all, Kitchen in particular seemed supremely relaxed, his facial expressions reflecting the many twists and turns of the first violin’s virtuosic lines.

At the end, the audience rose as one for a sustained ovation, and I realized that I hadn’t even looked at the screen for the last two movements. In this peculiar tug-of-war between score and performer, the performers won.