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There always seemed to be some sort of a conflict in the past that prevented me from hearing the Borromeo String Quartet. I was told by several outstanding musicians that they are a group of young artists who are simply dazzling - the hot string quartet of our time. Now, after hearing them twice in June, I regret missing their previous performances, and I join in the chorus of accolades for this remarkable group.
Formed in 1989 by students at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Borromeo Quartet (its name is taken from an area of northern Italy where the group played its first concerts) quickly established itself as "simply the best there is," according to The Boston Globe . Nicholas Kitchen, son of Dorothy Kitchen, director of the Duke University String School, and Dr. Joseph Kitchen, Professor of Mathematics at Duke and an accomplished organist, is the first violinist. William Fedkenheuer is second violin, Mia Motobuchi is the violist, and Yeesun Kim is the cellist. Nicholas and Yeesun are married and recently celebrated the birth of their first child. The BSQ has a very attractive website at http://www.borromeoquartet.org/ .
When you think of a summertime Sunday afternoon concert, you tend to imagine a somewhat light, uncomplicated, easy-to-digest presentation. Nothing could have been further from this than the marathon program given on June 22 in Duke's Griffith Film Theater. It was a rare opportunity to hear, in one sitting, the complete string quartets of Béla Bartók (1881-1945). These six works are among the greatest compositions of the 20th century, and they continue to this day to challenge listeners, performers, and theorists. The program was presented in order of composition with two intermissions, and the works in each pair were written closely together in time. This is music of monumental difficulty and intensity for people on both sides of the stage. There is a valid argument to be made that playing all six of these quartets at one time is overkill and eventually dulls the effect of Bartók's genius. Wouldn't it be nice to have a bit of Haydn or Mozart as a sort of aural palate cleanser? I could understand this attitude if the performances were simply good or even great. However, this was a miraculous feat. It is difficult enough to play one of these quartets well, but the sheer endurance, strength, skill, and concentration required to play some of the most difficult string writing for three and one half hours is a feat of nearly superhuman proportions.
Bartók was a somewhat contradictory figure since, while still being hailed as a "difficult, modern" composer, he was also well known as a collector of folk music. He used folk themes and modes in much of his music, including the quartets. Ironically, many of his folk-inspired themes did not find their way into the quartets until the third and fourth, which are considered the most "modern" of the six. Throughout these works he either developed or invented string techniques, including the famous " Bartók pizzicato," where the string is plucked so hard that it slaps back to the fingerboard, making a distinctive sound.
The first two quartets, written in 1907 and 1917, though still steeped in Romanticism, are unmistakably unique and possess the germs of the mature style that is so identifiable as Bartók. The Fourth Quartet is often considered the supreme masterpiece of the group and tends to employ the most effects, including a movement played entirely pizzicato. There is also a muted prestissimo movement that creates the effect of thousands of bugs scurrying about. I had brought my score of this work and was unable to follow this movement - it was played cleanly but so fast that I could barely see as quickly as they played! This was just one examples of many jaw-dropping moments that came one after another.
Kitchen and Motobuchi are the most animated of the group but they did not create visual distractions. There was subtle but obvious communication among all four players. They came off as one organism - thinking, reacting, and playing as a connected entity. The timing, phrasing, and depth of feeling were staggering. There was not a single moment where it felt as if there was even the slightest technical struggle - this was effortless virtuosity at the highest level. During three-and-a-half hours of playing, I was not able to discern even a passing intonation problem.
By the time they reached the Sixth Quartet, I got the feeling that much of the audience was more fatigued than the performers. This is music that assaults your senses but ultimately heightens them. Complete physical and emotional exhaustion would seem to be the result of playing such a demanding program, but, astonishingly, the Borromeo Quartet had the demeanor of a group that was ready to play more.
This was another once-in-a-lifetime musical event for our community. I will not let anything get in my way of hearing this stunning quartet the next time they play here - in Raleigh, with pianist Gary Graffman, on October 26.
Note: An article by Kitchen about performing the Bartók quartets is in the current (August 2003) print edition of Chamber Music, the magazine of Chamber Music America (http://www.chamber-music.org/).