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“What Makes it Great” with Borromeo and Ariel Quartets was Absolutely Great


Robert Kapilow is a man on a mission. With a missionary’s zeal, this musician of Promethean talents seeks to take classical music appreciation to the next level by engaging his audiences in active listening. A large gathering at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall was on hand Saturday evening, November 7, as Mr. Kapilow joined forces with the Borromeo and Ariel String Quartets in an installment of his What Makes It Great? series, now in its thirteenth season.

Rob Kapilow in action.  Photo by Mike Rocha
Rob Kapilow in action. Photo by Mike Rocha

There was but a single piece on the program, Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E-flat Major, Opus 20. As Kapilow put it, this was “Exhibit A” of evidence for the claim that Mendelssohn was the actually the greatest of all classical musical prodigies, eclipsing even the exalted Mozart. Though he didn’t actually begin composing until the relatively advanced age of ten, Mendelssohn’s early works demonstrate an unparalleled complexity and maturity. By the age of twelve he’d already completed some thirty three-part fugues, and we’re all familiar with the sparkling set of string symphonies produced in his very early teens. The Octet, created as a birthday present for his violin teacher and written when Felix was all of sixteen, is considered by many to be one of his greatest masterpieces. On February 3 Mendelssohn turned 200, though he doesn’t look a day over thirty-eight. In this anniversary year, a program dedicated to giving a deeper appreciation of this composer’s creations was more than appropriate.

After veritably bounding onto the stage, Mr. Kapilow plunged immediately into an extremely dynamic, well-choreographed, whirlwind analysis of this pinnacle of Mendelssohn’s oeuvre. The general presentation format involved Mr. Kapilow’s using the piano to demonstrate relevant snippets of the music, followed by a brief rendition of the theme by the double-quartet members. His explanations were precise and rapid-fire, peppered with musical definitions as necessary. The torrid pace put both audience and musicians through their paces; it definitely kept one on one’s toes (and ears). This listener found it more than a bit challenging to internalize the myriad enlightening interpretations. Overhead conversationette: “He makes me feel so smart! Now I can really appreciate all the compositional techniques.” “He makes me feel so dumb! It’s so fast, I can’t remember very much.” So there you go. Though utterly absorbing, it did seem as if concepts were flying by at warp speed, or as Kapilow put it, “magic moments that pass at the speed of light.” Actually, what we could have used was some form of slow-motion instant replay. Better yet, a supplemental DVD.

That said, I found his high-octane, highly entertaining, eminently quotable, erudite-yet-accessible analysis to be invaluable. A sampling of pertinent takeaways: Mendelssohn’s extensive training in fugal and contrapuntal composition was reflected in his predilection for inverting themes and weaving them seamlessly together; gained an appreciation for the way in which he exploited the dramatic effect of going from major to minor or forte to piano; Mendelssohn had a propensity for adding textures, truncating or embellishing themes, making minute modifications on each repeat, and passing a given theme through each of the individual parts. An extremely salient point made numerous times by Kapilow is that “the difference between good and great is both enormous and minuscule.” He illustrated this to great effect by playing a selected passage twice: first, what might be considered the run-of-the-mill, uninspired version; second, Mendelssohn’s actual score. What an ear-popping difference!

Following our hour-long “class,” we were treated to an uninterrupted performance of the Octet. I heard the different themes! I heard the inversions! I heard the dissonance of the paired scales in the second movement! And on and on. Seems as if quite a bit of Kapilow’s analysis actually sunk in. Greatly enhanced the listening experience; was much more attuned to the individual parts and various compositional techniques. Also helped having an absolutely top-flight ensemble: the Borromeo and Ariel String Quartet members are all musicians of the highest caliber, and they performed exceptionally well together.  Every one of the instrumentalists played with a virtuosity and youthful exuberance apropos of both piece and composer; Ariel’s cellist Amit Even-Tov was particularly animated. Was afraid her instrument might burst into flames at any moment. Actually, between the hyperenthusiastic Kapilow and the impassioned double-quartet members, we have an untapped energy source: could light the entire city for a week!

Mendelssohn’s Octet is a truly phenomenal composition. From the soaring themes of the opening Allegro to the abrupt mood change of the somber Andante to the gossamer, shimmering textures of the quintessentially Mendelssohnian Scherzo to the astonishingly technical eight-part fugal counterpoint of the final Presto, this piece is a compositional tour-de-force. Thanks to Rob Kapilow’s engaging and enlightening analysis in combination with the brilliant Borromeo-Ariel realization, I now have a significantly deeper understanding of and appreciation for this stunning work. Mr. Kapilow’s enthusiasm is most definitely contagious; one can only hope to be infected by the R1K1 virus! I’ll leave you with the overarching theme of the evening, attributed to Igor Stravinsky, and quoted more than once by Rob Kapilow: “Creativity begins with observation.”

Michael Rocha is a self-described “long-ago” music teacher, a long-time music enthusiast and pianist, and a short-time Web designer: He has an MS in Meteorology from MIT.

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