On their new disc, they take up a 20th-century classic, Bartók's String Quartet No 4, and two striking recent works requiring similarly scrupulous attention to expressive extremity.
In a curious and welcome departure, the recording contains two performances of Gunther Schuller's String Quartet No 4 -- one in concert and the next captured in the studio. The juxtaposition lets the listener go beneath the surface of Schuller's invigorating and moody writing, with its homages to Mozart and Beethoven, and plunge into a brooding and vehement sound world redolent of Bartók (minus the folk inspiration). Both performances are gripping, but the slightly more spacious studio version heightens Schuller's masterful musical suspense.
The Borromeo players achieve the special balancing act of patience and ferocity in Mohammed Fairouz's Lamentation and Satire, an intensely felt score in which the instruments engage in compelling duos, a fugue of doleful urgency and a farewell utterly bereft of hope.
The disc begins with the Bartók, a piece that remains jolting almost 85 years after its creation. The music requires the utmost concentration if the intricate rhythmic figures and eerie effects are to seize the ears. The Borromeo do so through painstaking adherence to dynamics, accents, texture, syncopations over the bar and telepathic interplay. As played by this brilliant ensemble, the Bartók is an exhilarating expedition that sets the scene for the bold journeys to come in the Schuller and Fairouz works.
By Donald Rosenberg
WITH a slight blue glow bathing their faces, the four musicians tapped their feet. It was not to keep time but to send pages of music flying by electronically on their stands.
The Borromeo String Quartet was rehearsing Beethoven's Quartet in C (Op. 59, No. 3) last week. But instead of reading parts perched on music stands, they followed Beethoven's notes, in his own handwriting, from the screens of MacBooks. A projector attached to a laptop beamed the manuscript onto a screen behind them.
"It's an incredible experience, watching the handwriting of Beethoven as it passes by you," said Nicholas Kitchen, the group's first violinist.
The digital tide washing over society is lapping at the shores of classical music. The Borromeo players have embraced it in their daily musical lives like no other major chamber music group. They record nearly all of their concerts. They have forsaken paper musical parts in favor of MacBooks nestled on special music stands, paging forward and back with foot pedals. They have replaced old-fashioned tuning devices and metronomes with programs on their laptops.
The Borromeo provides an example of how technology is shaping the production and creation of classical music, a bastion of traditional acoustic sound and repository of centuries-old masterpieces. Operas and concerts are being projected live in movie theaters; music has been written for cellphone ringers and laptops; concert audiences are seeing more and more multimedia presentations; orchestras use text messages to stay in touch with audiences; long-distance musical instruction through high speed Internet2 is common; YouTube videos are used for auditions. Many orchestras now present programs with sophisticated, high-definition video images accompanying the music.
With the Borromeo the contrast is all the more striking. A string quartet is the ultimate in musical refinement, four exquisitely blending instruments capable of infinite nuance - two violins, viola and cello that have essentially been unchanged for more than 400 years. Absorbing the technology did not come easily for these players. Longstanding professional string quartets are delicate organisms, in which egos must be balanced, personalities meshed and artistic compromises reached. The push for blanket recording and laptop stands caused tensions. Several members were slow to embrace the practices. At least one felt pressured to do so. But now, they said, the methods have become second nature, merely handmaidens in service to basic music making.
The Borromeo began selling its live concert recordings in an October 2003 performance at the Tenri Cultural Center in Manhattan, where it was scheduled to return on Friday. Also on Friday the quartet was to open a homemade Web store, livingarchive.org, to sell its performances online, as downloads or in hard copy. The Tenri program is to include the Beethoven quartet; the Canzona movement from Gunther Schuller's Quartet No. 3; the premiere of a quartet by Mohammed Fairouz, "Chorale Fantasy"; and a version of Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue (BWV 582) modified for electric string quartet by Mr. Kitchen.
The Borromeo had its origins in the late 1980s at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where Mr. Kitchen; Yeesun Kim, the cellist; and the other two original members were students. Mr. Kitchen and Ms. Kim met there at 16, began playing music together and within a year became a couple. (They are now married and have a 7-year-old son who often travels with them.) On leaving Curtis the quartet moved to the New England Conservatory of Music to study as a group for an artist's diploma. The other two current members are the violist Mai Motobuchi and the second violinist Kristopher Tong.
They took their name from the Borromean Islands in Lake Maggiore in Italy, near where they played their first concerts. Accolades followed. They joined the New England Conservatory faculty, won a Young Concert Artists Award in 1991 and a Cleveland Quartet Award in 1998, played as part of the Chamber Music Society Two of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2007. They have grown into a much respected ensemble.
In 2002 Mr. Kitchen, who talks with the meticulousness of a born techie, began preserving every performance he could, slowly educating himself about microphones, digital recorders and video cameras. (He does not record at halls with particularly high fees, like Carnegie and Alice Tully.)
"I realized it was such a pity for so many of them not to be recorded," he said.
Part of the motivation, quartet members said, is the powerful urge to grab onto and preserve those fleeting moments of great performances before a live audience. "For audience members it means a lot to have that memory of what they enjoyed so much," Ms. Kim said.
By now the quartet has more than 800 concerts in its archive. "I have a mountain of hard drives," Mr. Kitchen said. They are piled in an extra apartment the couple maintain in their condominium complex here in Jamaica Plain. Mr. Kitchen lugs around a 40-pound backpack of equipment for each performance. It takes about an hour to set up for a concert.
In the early years quartet members divided the labor of taking and shipping orders. The work, they said, became overwhelming, and they decided to sell selected performances through the Web site.
But that was not the only reason for cutting back. At least one member - Ms. Motobuchi - began feeling that the warts-and-all approach of total access was a bad idea. "Stupid mistakes do happen," Ms. Motobuchi said. The quartet decided to hold back some concerts "for the sake of our pride."
The quartet also uses recordings to teach and to prepare for concerts. Musicians have listened to themselves since recording became possible, but the Borromeo players take it to an extreme. Before every concert they run through a program and immediately listen to it, "with the rule that nobody should talk while they're listening," just like an audience member, Mr. Kitchen said.
"Along the way you notice hundreds and hundreds of details that you want to fix," he added. "Then next time you play it, it's transformed."
The quartet's other pioneering work lies in its use of laptops as music readers. The technology has been around for a while. Several pianists, including Christopher O'Riley, the host of the public radio program "From the Top," are regular practitioners. But the Borromeo is a rare ensemble that has adopted the laptop stands.
Members of other prominent quartets expressed admiration for the Borromeo's method but had no immediate plans to follow in their footsteps.
"I don't see us changing," Eugene Drucker, a violinist of the Emerson String Quartet, said. But he called the Borromeo members pioneers. "I know they're not the type of people to get swept up in the technology and forget to make music," he added. "Probably more and more groups will be doing this as we go along."
At the Beethoven rehearsal, in Pierce Hall at the New England Conservatory, the discussion was traditional. Mr. Tong questioned the color of sound in a quiet section after a loud passage. Mr. Kitchen suggested a more even-sounding series of bow strokes. Ms. Kim, who often plays with the half-smile of someone enjoying a subtle joke, worried about the others' covering a low-voiced cello passage.
The Borromeo permitted this amateur-clarinet-playing journalist to try a test run on the laptop. A reading of the first movement of Mozart's Clarinet Quintet was unnerving. One foot tap came too late, causing a page turn delay. An aging eye, already squinting at the tiny notes, sometimes had trouble finding its place. Watching the score and listening to the quartet's beautiful playing during rests proved distracting enough to lead to a late entrance. Marking the part with the Acrobat tool was cumbersome. All these difficulties, the musicians said, are quickly overcome.
For the Borromeo the use of laptops grew out of a nontechnological impulse. Mr. Kitchen decided he wanted to read his music from a full score - all four lines of the quartet together - rather than from his individual part. That requires many more page turns and makes the use of printed scores impractical.
So, inspired by the example of a pianist friend, Mr. Kitchen scanned scores into his laptop, which he placed on a portable stand that came with a foot pedal attachable through a USB (Footime, about $80). He started using the system for rehearsing, and one day in December 2007, for the performance of an unfamiliar piece, his colleagues suggested he take it onstage.
Now the members obtain scores from Web sites offering free editions, like imslp.org, PDF files provided by composers who write music with programs like Sibelius, and their own scanning. They bought advanced versions of Adobe Acrobat that allow annotations.
The quartet, fearful of battery failure, plugs the computers into power sources, covering the wires with a patterned Thai blanket. The players also carry hard copies of their parts as backup but say they have not experienced a computer crash yet. They use 15- or 17-inch MacBook Pros. The setup often draws curious inquiries from audience members new to the Borromeo.
Having the whole score in front of them is an immense help in playing new works. Complicated passages are immediately comprehensible. There are no long discussions in rehearsal that start, "What do you have there?"
Seeing the score as they play also deepens understanding of composers' intentions. "The parts are our convenience," Ms. Motobuchi said. The score "is exactly the direct picture they had in their mind."
And lighting is never a problem.
Mr. Kitchen, 44, the first to adopt the laptop system, kept pushing for it. "We had arguments and aggravated conversations about the issue," said Ms. Kim, 43, who had little hesitation. Ms. Motobuchi, 35, said she took about six months to get used to it.
Mr. Tong - at 29, the youngest and newest member of the group - resisted the most. He still sounds not completely happy with the situation.
Seeing the music of his colleagues on the page can detract from the magic of chamber-music-making, of communicating through hearing, he said. "When first learning a piece," Mr. Tong said, "it's a constant battle to open up the ears. For a long time I felt that the more I was seeing, the less I was hearing."
Mr. Tong held out, at least in more traditional repertory, until early last season. "I definitely felt like I was being pushed in a direction," he said, "which I resented." But in the tradition of healthy quartets, the members hashed out their differences during a long rehearsal. Mr. Tong came aboard and, he said, now sees the merits.
"Reading off the laptops," he added, "that was not part of the contract, but I've come around. I actually have had the experience of feeling much freer, because you are able to take a leap of faith and not gum up the works."
Mr. Kitchen acknowledged that playing from traditional parts had its advantages. "Your ears are forced to feel the other parts without seeing them," he said. "That's also something that we don't want to lose sight of."
At the same time, he added, "as a group we decided that that sense of confidence, of kind of being empowered by this richer information, was something that made our group perform better."
The Borromeo String Quartet's latest album, called "As It Was, Is, and Will Be" was artist-edited by Nicholas Kitchen and Gunther Schuller for a joint GM Recordings/Living Archive release on January 14. The album is unique among classical music releases in that it features both LIVE-IN-CONCERT and STUDIO versions of Gunther Schuller's masterpiece, String Quartet No. 4.
The disc also offers Béla Bartók's String Quartet No. 4, and "Lamentations and Satire" and recent work by composer Mohammed Fairouz, a swiftly rising star in the classical firmament.
The CD release concert, being presented by the TENRI Cultural Institute of New York on January 21 at 8pm, will feature the World Premiere of Mohammed Fairouz's CHORALE FANTASY.
TENRI Cultural Institute is located at 43A West 13th Street. Tickets can be purchased by calling 212.645.2800 or by visiting their website at http://artsat.tenri.org/1011season/010711.shtml
Béla BartókString Quartet No. 4
1. Allegro 2. Prestissimo, con sordino 3. Non troppo lento 4. Allegretto pizzicato 5. Allegro molto
Gunther SchullerString Quartet No. 4
LIVE VERSION 6. Lento moderato 7. Allegro energico 8. Lento assai
STUDIO VERSION 9. Lento moderato 10. Allegro energico 11. Lento assai
Mohammed Fairouz"Lamentation and Satire"
12. Lamentation 13. Satire
At 8pm on December 27 series curator, Composer Derek Bermel joins David Osenberg -- host of WWFM "Live on Cadenza" -- for part three of WWFM's series on the Borromeo recorded at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study.
The broadcast will included interviews with Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong airing on Saturday's December 11 and 18, both at 3pm on Cadenza.
The links to all three broadcast will be available for several months, so please listen in!
Culture LustBY JEN PATONspecial to KPBS Public BroadcastingAugust 8, 2010
The problem: World-famous classical musicians and composers are in San Diego for the the La Jolla Music Society's 2010 SummerFest concert series, and you need some sparkling factoids to drop during cocktails.The solution? Culture Lust's "2010 SummerFest Cheat Sheet." Learn all about secret affairs (from 200+ years ago), ancient instruments (from 2000+ years ago) and the intersection between MacBooks and performance.FRIDAY, August 6th: String SpectacularOpening night offers a "String Spectacular" featuring SummerFest's music director, Taiwanese-American violinist Cho-Liang "Jimmy" Lin, cellist Lynn Harrell, and the SummerFest Chamber Orchestra, along with the Borromeo String Quartet.Did you know?The Borromeo String Quartet is famous for being innovators in using technology in their performances. They created specially designed music stands for their MacBooks and use FootTimeTM, a "pdf score-reading tool that turns pages with a USB pedal." Check out the technology in action in the clip below, from a performance earlier this year for WNYC's "Soundcheck:"
Click HERE to listen to WNCY host John Schaefer interview with Nick and Kris about their use of Apple technology in performance, and the BSQ's all-Beethoven concert at Alice Tully Hall. Plus, a live studio performance!
"With the help of technology, The Borromeo Quartet is pushing the centuries-old traditions of the string quartet into the 21st century. We'll hear about their use of Pro Tools software, digitized sheet music and more. And, we'll hear some "oldies," when they preview an upcoming all-Beethoven concert at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center."
By Rory Williams
Don't be frightened by the unearthly glow on the stage-that's just the Borromeo String Quartet. Trading paper for plastic, the Borromeos are using laptops to read music during performances. This development has enabled them to view full four-part scores, resolve stage lighting issues, and solve an age-old dilemma: turning pages by hand.
Here's how it works: Each player's setup consists of a Mac PowerBook, a "plug-and-play" USB foot pedal called Footime, and a specially designed laptop stand, both made by Bili Inc. The music, which is viewed in the Adobe PDF format, is purchased, scanned, or otherwise found free online. The PDF format is great for easy reading across multiple platforms, and the foot pedal serves to flip each page with ease. Because players can zoom in and out while viewing the music, they are able to play from full four-part scores, and can mark pages using a trackpad.
"It's nice to avoid the panic of page turns, but the significant thing is that we read off of a complete score," says Nicholas Kitchen, the Borromeo first violinist. "The structure of working off the entire score is a profound change. Sometimes I've gotten access to the composer's original manuscript and kept both the edited and original versions open at the same time.
"This is a pretty revolutionary change in the experience of learning a new piece."
Kitchen has been working this way for the past two years, and it took some time for him to talk the others into going the all-digital route. "Each person had his own learning curve, but we're using it more and more in rehearsal," he says.
To help with aesthetics, a little oriental rug covers the power source and cables. "As we experiment with this, we also pay attention to the appearance. The Mac PowerBooks are elegant and sleek, and without all the big page turns, what happens on the stand is quite compact.
"We want it to be a harmonious part of the stage."
Another perk: storage.
Not only does Kitchen save the music scores on his computer, but he also does so online. Should his laptop fail, he can borrow another one, download his scores, strap it on the stand, plug in the footswitch, and he's good to go.
Kitchen says the amount of sheet music he's stored is significant-and liberating. "That aspect is overwhelming," he says. "You can have hundreds and hundreds of pounds of scores saved to your computer. There's not much feeling of restraint." This article also appears in Strings, Issue #177
The Borromeo Quartet is featured in the current January / February issue of Chamber Music Magazine. Writer Judith Kogan interviews Nick Kitchen about his magical rediscovery of Mendelssohns famed Octet through an early manuscript in progress.
WELLFLEET - The six Bach works for solo violin are the ultimate in expression for the violin, and they are also the measure of a particular violinist's salt. A violinist can return throughout her or his career to wrestle with the three sonatas and three partitas, known for their depth of feeling and the different expressions lent to them by each player.
The 30th season of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival will come to a very dramatic close in Wellfleet at 3 p.m. on Sunday, Oct. 25, with a solo performance by violinist Nicholas Kitchen.
Kitchen, in a special night, will perform three Bach solos, as well as work by Bartók, Hindemith and Ysaÿe, three composers who wrote pieces for violin inspired by the unaccompanied work by Bach. Entitled "Bach Cycling to the Future," it will include a special multi-media presentation of the Bach music. The Wellfleet concert is the first with this specific program.
Kitchen will perform the Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV. 1001, a famous sonata that starts softly and builds in emotional intensity. The second piece is the Partita in D minor with its unusual structure of four movements to which Bach added a fifth movement, the legendary Bach Chaconne.
Kitchen says he is still surprised by what he finds in the music after years of studying, teaching and performing it.
"What's so amazing about the Cycle," Kitchen says by phone, "is that Bach decided to do something so ambitious for a solo violin, a tiny box of wood." Kitchen, along with other students of Bach, guesses that the Chaconne was written as an epitaph for Bach's first wife, Maria Barbara, upon her death. It is the music that is the most convincing evidence. "It starts with tragic darkness and despair and then becomes absolutely joyous," he says.
The Chaconne along with the other movements is sure to bring out the gorgeousness of Kitchen's playing.
"I have played all six on numerous occasions," he says. "Early on you learn the magnificence, the challenge, of the music but when I spent more time I began to see the symmetry and relationships among all the pieces. I noticed more and more minor fugues, patterns among the pieces."
Kitchen did not mention that last spring at the Library of Congress, he performed the six solos on five Cremonese violins made between the 17th and 18th centuries (The video taken on that occasion is posted beneath the program of the Wellfleet concert on the Borromeo String Quartet's website.)
The violins, made in the time of Bach, are now held in the collection of the Library of Congress. Kitchen plays regularly on a violin called the Guarneri del Gesù, known as the "Baron Vita, which belonged to his teacher, Szymon Goldberg.
Kitchen is the first violinist in The Borromeo String Quartet, which includes violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim, who is also Kitchen's spouse. The quartet performs more than 100 concerts a year all over the U.S., Europe and Asia, and is the quartet-in-residence at the New England Conservatory.
For six years, Kitchen served as artistic director of the Cape Cod Festival and he is enthusiastic about its special community.
Kitchen is known for his embrace for the innovative possibilities in new technology. He has been at the forefront of recording live chamber music concerts, as well as using web video technology for distance learning at NEC. Sunday will allow Cape Cod audiences a peek into this world. Kitchen has a digitized version of Bach's own hand-written manuscript and he turns the pages with a pedal. Kitchen describes the pages as visually beautiful. One can only imagine what it would be like for someone who can read the music to be looking at Bach's notes while hearing Kitchen's interpretation of each phrase.
While he likes to educate people about the innards of the pieces he plays, he hopes that the audience at WHAT will very simply able "to enjoy the beautifully raw meditative experience of the Bach."
"These days having a mobile presence is a must, and InstantEncore delivers powerful apps that are incredibly easy to manage."