The Borromeo String Quartet, faculty quartet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory, shared the Jordan Hall stage Sunday evening, March 7, with three student award-winners and one guest artist. In addition to showcasing the 2010 Guest Artist Award recipients, this concert was the Borromeos’ third of an eight-part series featuring the complete string quartet cycle of local contemporary composer Gunther Schuller. A countable number of listeners were in the audience; perhaps attendance was compromised in part by the concurrent Academy Awards ceremony. I’d say the concertgoers definitely made the right choice!
Mozart’s Oboe Quartet in F Major, K. 370 (1781) got the festivities off to a light and effervescent start. The pastel tones of this sweet bon-bon, light as cotton candy and evocative of a soft Spring day, were performed in playfully elegant fashion, with graceful, dance-like phrases and gestures. Oboist Amanda Hardy spun sinuous, silky tendrils of sound, featuring clearly articulated ornamentation and smooth, ultra-expressive dynamic comings and goings. String players Kristopher Tong, violin, Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello played delicately and expressively, providing a perfectly balanced accompaniment. The overall effect was one of gentle precision. Refreshingly, there was nary a cough or splutter between movements; the audience was rapt (and apparently healthy).
And then … what’s this? … some sort of solar flare, or was it perhaps a volcanic eruption? Gunther Schuller’s powerful String Quartet No. 3 (1986) was a jarring and riveting musical antithesis of the Mozart, an emphatic yang to Wolfgang’s yin. Airy pastels were replaced by dense burgundies and steely grays; we had definitely entered film noir territory. Herr Schuller instructs players to perform the first movement, Maestoso, “with great intensity,” and the Borromeos certainly took him at his word! Passion and gravitas were dripping all over the stage; tensions built and erupted. This music was dark, sinister, low-pH, and high-energy, and the Borromeo members played with a simmering fury. In contrast to the dramatic solar flare of the Maestoso, the Canzona’s auditory solar eclipse came across like the inner voice of a tormented soul. Extremely exacting playing by the quartet members; fastidious attention to detail; exquisite sensitivity and grace; serious countenances all around. The final Allegro imparted a sense of dark urgency, where the negative space between sounds carried at least as much weight as the notes themselves. Challenging for performers and audience members alike, this captivating, tightly wound, palatably harsh piece grabbed listeners by the heart, ears, and brain and never let go. Intriguingly, could have sworn I caught a whiff or two of Mozart and Beethoven in the midst of the twelve-tone structure. Perhaps it was just my imagination. Actually, it should be noted that the Borromeos are in the midst of recording all of Schuller’s string quartets — definitely something to look forward to. An added treat: the composer himself was in attendance, and made his way to the foot of the stage to share in the warm accolades.
Following the emotional intensity of the Schuller, our psyches were assuaged by the warm aural tapestry of Johannes Brahms, specifically his Sextet in G Major, Op. 36 (1865). Featuring three Borromeo members juxtaposed with their Guest Artist Award winner/special guest counterparts (Nicholas Kitchen and winner Audrey Wright, violins; Mai Motobuchi and guest Dimitri Murrath, violas; Yeesun Kim and winner Holgen Gjoni, cellos), this performance brought to mind the Marlboro Music Festival, featuring as it does a potent blend of established music professionals and talented up-and-comers. From the shimmering tones and soothing triple meter of first movement to the busy, urgent phrases of the final Poco Allegro, this expansive work was performed with ambrosial perfection. The round, full-bodied tones of guest cellist Holgen Gjoni were especially notable. Unfortunately, it seemed, to this pair of ears at least, as if the playing of violinist Audrey Wright was obscured somewhat by the indefatigable Nicholas Kitchen, and guest violist Dimitri Murrath was relegated to playing an inordinate amount of pizzicato (which he did quite admirably). No matter: the overall result was music of the highest caliber. Though each instrumentalist appeared to be intently focused on their particular part, with little discernible interaction, they sounded as if they played and breathed as one.
In the inordinately rich and vibrant musical scene of Boston, the Borromeo String Quartet is a true stand-out. Is it possible to play with more passion? Is it possible to play with a higher degree of technical prowess? With a greater sense of sharing? And all without music scores! (OK, they actually use laptops with foot controls.) And then there’s octogenarian composer Gunther Schuller, one of the shining lights of contemporary music. And the myriad talented music students pouring into our city from around the world. An embarrassment of riches. Next time, consider forgoing the Oscars.