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Musical Coral Reef: Borromeo Quartet


An appreciative audience, with a large number of chamber string players in evidence, fought through their post-Thanksgiving tryptophan coma for another magnificent (and free) program from the Borromeo String Quartet on Monday, November 28 at Jordan Hall.

Why would the New England Conservatory, at its year-long “Mahler Unleashed” concert series, present their quartet in residence playing Schoenberg’s String Quartet in D, op. 7 and Schubert’s D-Minor “Death and the Maiden” quartet, D. 810? It turns out that both works were near and dear to Mahler’s heart; after his first look at the Schoenberg score, Mahler wrote, “I have conducted the most difficult scores of Wagner; I have written complicated music in scores of up to thirty staves and more; yet here is a score of not more than four staves, and I am unable to read them.” And at the quartet’s vigorously booed premiere performance, Mahler was moved enough to defend Schoenberg personally against one of his more boorish detractors. Schubert mattered deeply to Mahler as well, both by providing inspiration for creating art songs and for using those songs as thematic inspiration for movements in large-scale instrumental works. What’s more, Mahler made detailed notes about orchestrating Schubert’s D.810 quartet for performance by string orchestra (played by the NEC Chamber Orchestra on November 17).

As it happens, these are also two masterpieces of the quartet repertoire that the Borromeos have performed triumphantly in the past, and they did not disappoint tonight. The program began with first violinist Nicholas Kitchen offering a few introductory remarks about the Schoenberg. His brief, informative notes provided a quick sketch of the musical structure with evocative descriptions and strategic musical snippets — signposts that marked the transitions between the Sonata-Allegro, Scherzo, Adagio, Rondo-Finale, and Epilogue sections of the 46-minute single-movement work. He also provided a compelling metaphor for the piece by likening it to a musical “coral reef,” massive in scope, but where on closer inspection, a small number of species combine and recombine in an endless array of configurations and patterns.

The Borromeo Quartet are the ideal ensemble to take us through this musical coral reef. Schoenberg’s Op. 7 provided the ensemble with countless opportunities to show off their strengths, including an uncanny ability for each individual member of the quartet (violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim) to shine with a soloist’s mastery when their part has a moment in the spotlight, yet when a colleague has the focus, for each player to play accompanying figures with exemplary detail and direction without ever overshadowing the main event. They mingled in one-against-three and two-on-two combinations, playing Schoenberg’s quicksilver reconfigurations with seamless mastery. All the members played with blazing conviction, giving every phrase a direction, shape, and sense of purpose that swept you through the contrapuntal complexities. And they captured the astonishing range of moods and emotions in the work, from gemütlich Viennese charm to anger, tenderness and more. Special moments that caught my ear included Kitchen and Tong, making even a figure on a single repeated note tell a story; Motobuchi playing the haunting viola melody at the heart of the Adagio with an achingly beautiful legato; and Kim playing a pedal point in the Epilogue at a hushed pianissimo, but with enough steel and core in her sound to bring out ringing overtones as the upper strings chimed in above her in ecstatic unity. It was a sweeping, overwhelming performance, and deserved the cheers, hoots, and bravos from the Jordan Hall crowd.

After intermission, the quartet reassembled in front of their MacBook Pros and launched directly into Schubert’s d-minor quartet with no spoken introduction. The Borromeo’s way with this work is well documented; at  you can download a free MP3 file with a complete performance of the piece here. On headphones or a car stereo, one easily discerns the adrenalin rush of their performance, especially the crank-it-to-eleven ferocity with which they sped up in the codas of the outer movements. And forward momentum was very much in evidence at tonight’s Jordan Hall performance, with a fast tempo taken in the outer movements, no exposition repeat in the first movement, and faster codas than seem humanly possible. But what is easily lost in electronic compression is this group’s incredible dynamic range, their ability to do slow burn crescendos that stretch over pages, the same coral reef-like re-combinations that stood out in the Schoenberg, and the same marvelous ability to solo and accompany with equal skill. (In particular, in many a recording of the theme-and-variations movement drawn from Schubert’s song Der Tod und das Mädchen, the intricate patterns and high tessitura of the first violin part make it easy for the first violinist to overplay and obliterate the lower strings. Kitchen was a model of clarity, playing all the details attentively but always using the patterns as decoration to support the thematic tune.) And MP3 files simply don’t do justice to the gentle tenderness of the Trio, or the shimmering, pulsing, hushed pianissimo of the major-key ending of the second movement.

And then there was that ending, where they cranked it to twelve without missing a beat. A memorable evening, and one that brought the crowd to its feet. But you also don’t have to take my word for it; cards handed out with the concert programs imply that the concert will be offered for free streaming here.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night.  He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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