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August 14, 2011

The Borromeo Connects with Greenhouse

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The Borromeo String Quartet – Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violins, Mai Motobuchi, viola, and Yeesun Kim, cello, — along with Laurence Lesser, cello, paid tribute to their teacher and colleague Bernard Greenhouse on Friday, August 12, in Wellfleet. A founder and long-time member of the Beaux-Arts Trio, Greenhouse died at his home in Wellfleet this past May, at age 95. A student of Casals, he was known for his deeply expressive playing. When his father brought a cello home to him at the age of eight, it was love at first sight, and Greenhouse played this instrument with great acclaim in concerts and recitals throughout his long life.

The performance began with a moving video portrait of Greenhouse, with pictures taken through his long career, in which he spoke of his feelings about music and musicianship and comments on his unique cello voice. It was put together by his long-time student and friend, Dr. Thomas Delbanco – a violinist and a BMInt contributor. It was delightful to see the video for the second time; I saw it first at a benefit concert for the Outer Cape Health Service shortly after Bernie’s death. The OCHS had hoped Greenhouse could play – as he had the previous year – but it was not to be. In that OCHS concert the Fry Street String Quartet played one of his favorite pieces, the adagio of Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major. Cellist Paul Katz played Greenhouse’s part on his own cello, the Countess of Stanlein Stradivarius of 1707, once owned by Paganini and restored through Greenhouse’s efforts. (In Friday’s concert, the Borromeo and Laurence Lesser treated us to the entire piece.)

The video also gave those of us with little knowledge of his playing the chance to see and hear him play – in this case bits of the Beethoven piano trio with Nicholas Kitchen. Although the video segments were made late in Greenhouse’s life, the sensitivity and emotional power of the playing was evident. Greenhouse played with a great variety of dynamics, and a deliberate and constant wide vibrato – a strongly vocal sound. The passages chosen were places where the cello was playing solo and not fast, so the vocal quality was appropriate – although unusual in modern string playing.

First piece was Choral Fantasy for String Quartet, a commissioned short work by twenty-six-year-old Mohammed Fairouz, a rising popular New York composer. Kitchen gave him the challenge of composing one of eventually six choral fantasies for string quartet, each based on a chorale melody. The melody could be traditional, from another genre, or entirely made up. Once finished, the task of composing the next fantasy would fall to another composer. (John Harbison is up next.) Fairouz chose a Bach chorale as a cantus – although he claimed he had hidden it sufficiently that it would not be recognized. The piece consisted of a set of short variations, each in a different style. The first was relatively traditional harmonically, devoid of counterpoint, and with many unisons. The styles of the variations quickly diverged into Middle Eastern, klezmer, even jazz, before subtly returning to simpler style and unisons. The piece was very successful, and was greeted both with loud applause and bravos.

The Borromeo sat in an unusual configuration for the whole concert, with the first and second violins on opposite sides of the stage. The cello was facing forward on the side with the first violin, and the viola, also facing forward, was next to the second violin. The arrangement puts the two strongest instruments next to each other, and lets the viola present the front of the instrument to the audience. It is almost always possible to distinguish the first violin and the cello in a string quartet, so putting them together does not hinder the ability of the audience to hear them separately. Putting the second violin on the opposite side of the group makes it much easier to hear, even though the second violin presents the back of the instrument to the audience. The downside is that unless the second violinist plays with more power he is less likely to balance with the rest of the quartet. This problem was evident throughout the concert – but not particularly problematic. The new arrangement also gave new life to the playing of Motobuchi on viola – a strong, rich tone, more like a cello than a viola.

The first movement of Beethoven’s String quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 74, another Greenhouse favorite, contains some great interchanges between the first and second violin, and the new seating arrangement made it much easier to hear them. In several places in the first movement all four instruments played pizzicato notes at different times, and the way the plucked sounds bounced around the quartet, enhanced by the seating arrangement, was delightful. I am fond of testing both the balance in a performance and the acoustics of a hall by trying to separately follow both the second violin and the viola line with my eyes closed. With the new arrangement, at least in the second row of the hall, this was both possible and enjoyable. The second movement, adagio, starts with a beautiful melody in the first violin, and (whether deliberately or not) Kitchen played it as I imagine Bernie Greenhouse would have – almost melodramatic and with Greenhouse’s wide vibrato. It was a wonderful way to hear and connect with the deceased master. Another interesting connection in the program was the nature of the adagio melody and the variations that followed it. The melody was more Schubert than Beethoven, and the Quartet’s playing brought out the similarity. The presto that followed was pure Beethoven – exceedingly fast. The final allegretto con variazioni was sometimes angry and dissonant – but the sweetness of the adagio theme came back in a lovely violin solo.

Schubert’s great cello quintet ended the program, a piece Greenhouse performed often and recorded four times. Once again in the first movement there were duets between the first and second violins, enhanced by the new seating arrangement. The second movement, adagio, is one of the most beautiful in Schubert’s oeuvre. The bass cello, played by Lesser, plays almost entirely pizzicato, plucking out the melody or commenting upon it. My ears were still ringing with the performance from June 4, where the huge Stanlein Strad’s exceptionally rich resonance on the two open bottom strings rang through the hall. Lesser’s Brothers Amati cello, although a wonderful instrument, lacked that incredible resonance. I have never before been aware of what a difference an exceptional instrument can make to a performance.

The third movement, Scherzo: Presto; Trio: Andante sostenuto, demonstrated one of Bernie Greenhouse’s points in the video – that it is often what you don’t play — the pauses or breaths between the notes — that lets the music live. In this performance not just the breaths, but the rests were evocative. The final allegretto movement brought the piece to a rousing finish and an instant standing ovation.

David Griesinger is a Harvard-trained physicist who is eminent in the field of sound and music. His website is here.

5 Comments

  1. Tom Delbanco informs me that Paul Katz did not play on the Steinlein Strad, but on his own instrument by Andrea Guarnerius, a student of Niccolo Amati and the father of the Guarneri clan. But Delbanco agrees that Paul produced more sound than Loesser.

    Comment by David Griesinger — August 15, 2011 at 9:32 am

  2. Lots of variables contribute to the projection of a stringed instrument in a concert hall. The player is probably of paramount importance. Recall the following, whether apocryphal or not: After a concert, a member of the audience went up to Jascha Heifetz. He said, “Wow, your violin sounds really great.” Heifetz then held the violin up close to his ear and replied, “Funny, I don’t hear anything.”

    But the instrument and the conditions also make a big difference. Both Paul Katz and Laurence Lesser are famed cellists and play large cellos made by extraordinary Cremonese makers. But I suspect the reason that Katz had a bigger sound than Lesser reflected further variables: heat and humidity. The concert with the Fry Street Quartet in early June took place on a cool, cloudless, dry, glorious day in Wellfleet. Last week, the Borromeo and Lesser found themselves in the same hall, but this time it was hot and steamy. When we make comparisons, whether in acoustics (Griesinger), or medicine (my profession), all the variables make for yet another dismal science, But, one thing for sure, we were treated a month apart to a terrific apple pie and an orange soufflé. Who’s to say what’s better?

    Speaking of balance of sound, I sat in the back listening to the Borromeo in the Beethoven quartet and found myself hatching a heretical plot. Nicholas Kitchen, their first violinist, has both a big sound in his fingers and is also privileged to play a fine Guarnerius del Gesu. To my ears, he dominated to a degree that interfered with the music, although the violist showed that a modern instrument, made by Peter and Wendela Moes, could almost stay with him. However, the Venetian cello didn’t provide a strong bass, and the second fiddle, also an old Italian, was hard to hear with any kind of definition. And it was at a particular disadvantage, as Griesinger points out. It was facing away from the audience, given the decision to place the player opposite from the first violinist who was in the “leader’s” traditional spot stage right.

    Historically, quartets seem to fall into two types: The first, dominated by the first fiddler (the Amadeus, Aeolian, Kreisler come to mind), the second with the inner voices taking control (to my ears, the Budapest was a wonderful example). Here’s a suggestion for the Borromeo, which has already proved adventurous in so many ways. Why doesn’t Kitchen switch places with Kristopher Tong? He’d face his colleagues; his fiddle would bounce happily off the back walls, and they’d be in the headlines! I’d love to hear what they sound like that way.

    Comment by Tom Delbanco — August 15, 2011 at 10:52 pm

  3. A lot depends on the acoustics of the auditorium as well. I once heard the Borromeo as a cello dominant ensemble.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — August 15, 2011 at 10:56 pm

  4. A few comments on Tom’s comment:

    First – Acoustics can be important, but not because of the temperature or humidity. Humidity might change the way the wood in a cello vibrates, and it can change the properties of the hair on the bow, and the rosin. But the air absorption due to the roataional degree of freedom posessed by water molecules affects almost entirely frequencies above 4kHz – and these were not the ones I was noticing.

    Second – where you sit in the hall makes an enormous difference to the sound, although perhaps not to the perceived balance of low frequencies vs mid frequencies. My recent work has concentrated on the physics of our abililty to separately perceive instruments that are playing together or voices that are speaking at the same time. In music this means distinctly hearing every note of the second violin while the other instruments are playing. It is amazing that we can do this at all, as the harmonics of the various instruments that carry most of the information about their timbre overlap on the basilar membrane of the ear – and current theories of hearing are unable to explain how the brain can perceive them separately. In my current understanding, they are separated due to phase relationships of the harmonics of individual instruments. These harmonics interfere with each other to reproduce the fundamentals of each instrument as an amplitude modulation, and these fundamentals can be separated from each other by the brain-stem. The process of detecting these harmonics takes time – up to about 100ms. Reflections randomize the phases – so reflections are inherently destructive to our ability to separately perceive different instruments. Whether the reflections do so or not depends on how strong they are compared to the direct sound, and how early they come.

    The sum of reflections in the back of a hall is much stronger than the direct sound, and they arrive at the listener sooner than they do in the front of the hall. People in the back cannot separate instruments using the phase method. They are compelled to revert to the using the conventional hearing model – which predicts they cannot reliably separate different instruments. Sure enough, they can’t, particularly if there is a balance problem. (They can still do it sometimes, as there are always a few times where notes do not overlap, and harmonics can be separated purely by amplitude. A great deal has been made of this in published papers, which propose that the separation problem – the cocktail party effect – has long been solved.)

    I LIKE being able to hear every part all the time – and it is possible if you sit close enough. In the Wellfleet Congregational church this means getting there early enough to grab a seat in the first five rows of the center section. The church is roughly 40′ square in plan, with about a 20′ ceiling. This means the first reflections in the first five rows come about 40ms after the direct sound, and their combination is weak enough to let the brain stem separeate the harmonics from each instrument. As you move back the direct sound is weaker, there are more reflections, and they come sooner. At a critical point you lose the ability to hear the direct sound as distinct from the reflections, and the instruments blend together. In fact – my seat-mate at the Borromeo concert had to move to the rear of the church after the first piece, and came up to me later and said “the sound in the back is nice – very well blended.” To me this means you cannot separate the instruments. Some people like not having to try – I am surprised that Tom chooses to sit so far back.

    More on this subject can be found on the author’s web-page: http://www.davidgriesinger.com. There is also a long article in the January 2011 issue of Acoustics Today.

    Comment by David Griesinger — August 18, 2011 at 11:19 pm

  5. Hello friends,

    Thanks for all the interesting thoughts. I thought I would add to your discussion something which was part of our rehearsals in the second movement of the Schubert. We made a conscious effort to make the long line that is in Second Violin, Viola and Cello the main pianissimo narrative, and we consciously departed from the way this piece often comes off as rich pizzicato in dialogue with first violin with vague heavenly background. So, I am not surprised if it was perceived as different than what one has often heard and enjoyed. I can say for sure it is not because of any less potential for gum-drop resonant pizzicatos on the part of our esteemed second cellist. Those pizzicato are largely pianissimo in the score as well – explicitly, in fact – and we spoke while rehearsing about allowing them to be more delicate and not white out the long line. As far as the seating ideas…all very interesting! You raise the question for me of inadvertent whiting out that I may be doing (hmmmm). And the physics of perception, it is really kind of miraculous the way the brain can process information! It makes me think again that music is of course the sounds which are planned and created, but it is maybe more importantly, and even physically! what we all bring to it in our own minds. And I am very happy about what we all brought to the concert on August 12, including all of our memories of Mr. Greenhouse! Thanks again for all the stimulating thoughts. Nick

    Comment by Nicholas Kitchen — September 9, 2011 at 6:17 pm

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