The opening festivities at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival continued apace on Saturday, June 12, as Rockport Music presented the Borromeo String Quartet and pianist Gilles Vonsattel in the first full small-ensemble program at RM’s new Shalin Liu Performance Center. The program was a responsible assortment of chamber staples—Beethoven’s Quartet No. 2 in G Major, op. 18 and the Brahms Piano Quintet—with a newish work, Mark Kilstofte’s String Quartet No. 2, sobriqueted “Quartette.”
We have been devoting, for what we trust are obvious reasons, more than normal space in these columns to the physical and sonic attributes of RM’s new hall. To our earlier physical description we would like to add mention of one other item, which is the upper space of the hall. This features diagonal metal trusses attached to oppositely angled beams, creating a very pleasantly arched effect that acknowledges traditional design formulations without slavishly copying them. We understand that the trusses are backed by some removable sound-dampening material so that they can contribute to the tuning of the room.
This leads to a consideration of what seems to be developing into a sharp difference of opinion about the hall’s sound qualities, with many admiring the carrying power and clarity of the sound and others decrying a perceived deadness of sound, resulting from the carefully calibrated reverberation. One audience member described hearing the Borromeos performing some of the same pieces they played Saturday on earlier occasions at Jordan Hall and remembering the latter to be much softer, warmer and blended in sound. It may well be that those who prefer listening to recordings on LPs to those on CDs will have issues with the emphasis the hall places on clarity. We spoke after the concert to Yeesun Kim, the Borromeo’s cellist, who acknowledged a touch of dryness to the sound but nothing she felt she had to fight; she was most pleased by the clarity and projection. Fortunately, the room’s designed-in tuning capabilities give RM a chance to mess with our ears a bit until as near everyone as possible can be mollified.
The concert itself could not have been chosen better to highlight the pluses and—if you so regard them—minuses of the Shalin Liu. The quartet (Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins, Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Ms. Kim, cello) began with perhaps the most carefree of Beethoven’s op. 18 quartets, the No. 2 in G major. From the get-go the Borromeos illustrated exactly what it is that chamber music fans love about the genre, when performed by groups that have, through years of interaction, become well accustomed to one another: here was a dinner conversation in which every voice was distinctly heard (OK, not exactly like every dinner conversation to which we’ve been a party) and to which each contributed to the fuller understanding of a subject. The scherzo, interrupted near the beginning by a string malfunction quickly corrected, was the epitome of winsome jocularity. The slow movement gave the occasion for well-blended ensemble, while the finale was taken with brio but restrained dynamics. The players threw themselves into the spirit of the piece, quite literally at points, punctuating the ends of phrases with great uplifts of bows and feet (the music, among Beethoven’s most Haydnesque, moves through the silence at these points with pure harmonic propulsion). One hates to see musicians on stage holding themselves in place like statues, but sometimes body English can be carried too far—nuff said.
Mark Kilstofte, a seasoned composer age 52 who was a student of William Bolcom among others, and who now teaches at Furman University in North Carolina, composed his second quartet in 1988, so it is not spanking new, but it and its composer were new to us (the Borromeos have, so we’re told, performed it in Boston before). It is a solid, engaging work apparently entirely monothematic, based on an opening-wedge-shaped motif. Mr. Kitchen supplemented the printed program notes with an illustrated discussion of the various transformations this melodic idea takes. “Not a tune from home,” he acknowledged, but sufficiently memorable to keep the listener engaged and interested in its progress. And progress it did, from barely (but clearly) audible scrapings into choo-choo propulsion, thence into lush mock-Rachmaninovia. The slow movement presents it first in a harmonically static setting, with a two-note rocking module that gradually expands to three notes, and so on to end with a rush of sound from the viola. (We should take this opportunity to praise Ms. Motobuchi, whose work throughout was exceptional). Perhaps a head-nod to, or spoof of, minimalism at work here? The scherzo, all pizzicato punctuated with loud Bartók string-snaps, was intended, it says right here, as a joke, but this seemed less successful, although a few false endings earned some chuckles. The finale began with lots of rhythmic drive and a good many notes sul ponticello (near, or on, the bridge). The two-note rocking motif returned, this time in a clear pool of tonal harmony, before the recapitulation. (Mr. Kilstofte is not afraid to use older forms.) The big ending came, but to our ears, not big enough.
The program finale brought to the stage the Swiss-born and Juilliard-trained Gilles Vonsattel, a former student of RM’s artistic director David Deveau, in the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor op. 34. This is the mother of all piano quintets: long, serious, intense. For the first time, we wondered if the hall might not be suitable for music like this, since the first movement proceeded as if through a veil: the dynamics were oddly subdued and the combination of the tonal clarity and the calibrated precision of the players, especially Mr. Vonsattel, dried out not just the sonority but also the work’s effect. The slow movement brought from the performers an uncommon delicacy, and while the “scherzo” (never an easy or unambiguous concept for Brahms) yields some thunderous passages, it was the softer ones that made the greatest impression and seemed to draw from the players their finest ensemble tone. The finale, however, with its drawn-out introduction that eventually seizes control of the whole movement, was a pure triumph, piercing the veil and grabbing the audience by the lapels.