On a beautiful Sunday afternoon, the Borromeo String Quartet visited the Fletcher Opera Theater as guests of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild. Well, I guess we have to say they were visiting, though they are a familiar act around these parts due to founder and first violinist Nicholas Kitchen’s Durham roots. We like to think of the Triangle as their second home and how fortunate we are to be able to hear them as often as we do. Since their formation in 1989, the awards and accolades have accumulated, the critical reviews have been uniformly and increasingly positive and their reputation as a quartet that performs as a unit is known world-wide. This concert demonstrated their superb ensemble, the beautiful sound of their treasured instruments and their exceptional performance technique. Kitchen is joined by violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim and they are always welcome in the Triangle.

For this concert they chose three quartets, each of which in its own way, looks into the past, speaks to the present and projects a future vision. The opening work was Charles Ives’ String Quartet No. 1, nicknamed “” Revival Service.” The first movement was written under the influence of Ives’ ultra-conservative European-trained teacher, Horatio Parker. The other three movements were originally composed for church use; the second and fourth movements actually for revival meetings, hence the sub-title. The three movements, “written out of class,” so to speak, show Ives’ inclination to use the familiar hymns, popular tunes and well-known classical music as a starting point and transfigure it in a way that tickles your ears and makes you hear it anew.  Though completed in 1896, it was not publically performed until 1957 and published in 1971.  Looking back through his later Symphonies and incidental works one can see the now universally accepted genius of this unique American treasure who through his harmonic and rhythmic adventurousness saw things in music way beyond his time.

It is always a joy and a privilege to hear a new work, especially one composed by a local artist. J. Mark Scearce‘s Str Qt Nr 2, “Atlantis” (that is the way it is printed in the program) is scored for string quartet and tenor soloist. Such an ensemble is not unheard of and might be called a vocal quintet, but it is a rare beast in the chamber repertoire. Scearce is the Director of the Music Department at North Carolina State University and has composed works for orchestra, band, chorus, opera, chamber and ballet. They have been performed throughout North America, Europe, Asia and the Pacific. Wade Henderson, a voice well known to Triangle audiences, and one that seems to develop subtlety, richness and wisdom with each performance, provided the key element in this notable work. Based on the final section (“Atlantis”) of Hart Crane’s epic poem The Bridge, the work opens with a storm in the quartet, complex counterpoint, modern harmonies yielding to the voice of the tenor describing in Crane’s mystical vision the cables and solid structure of the Brooklyn Bridge. With various techniques, combinations, harmonies and complex rhythms, Scearce has the quartet weave with the tenor the poet’s vision. At times achingly lyrical (“Make thy love sure — to weave whose song we ply!”) and at times frightfully real (“Sustained in tears the cities are endowed  / And justified conclamant with ripe fields / Revolving through their harvests in sweet torment”),  Crane’s textual visions are not easy, but every now and then his vision of Atlantis — the new world of the future — bursts upon you. With Henderson’s mellow voice and the stunning combination of the Borromeo String Quartet, the magic happened. It was and will be a memorable event to look back on for years to come. The work received its world premiere two days before at Bargemusic, under the Brooklyn Bridge. It is dedicated to the Borromeo Quartet and the memory of Don Wilder (former artistic director and conductor of the National Opera Company and member of the board of the A. J. Fletcher Foundation) who passed away earlier this month.*   

Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in A minor, Op. 41, No. 1, is a product of his so called “Chamber Music Year” (1842), during which he gave way to a building fascination with the polyphonic textures of the canon (not the gun, but the imitative form of music more familiar perhaps as a round). This work begins with a straightforward canon starting with the first violin which is followed by the second violin, the viola and the cello before moving into complexities and thematic development. The movement concludes as the canon is repeated, this time with the cello starting and the other voices entering in reverse order. However, the winsomeness of this quartet is in the second and fourth movements, both exploding with energy and driving force that barely allow you to sit still. I took the second movement home with me and light-heartedly relived it as I sat at my desk and reflected on the effect Scearce’s music and Crane’s words had on me. I looked at the color coming in the leaves, savored the fading light and the pleasant temperature and gave thanks for music which takes me to places I could never go otherwise.

Come back soon, Borromeo.

P.S. The encore was a serene performance of the Fugue in C Sharp Minor from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, arranged for strings by the Borromeo Quartet.

*Updated 2/2/09: This is a link to video of Scearce’s “Atlantis”: http://livingarchive.org/081026_scearce_atlantis_quartet.html