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The Music of Bach Bookends Borromeo Quartet Performance

by Jeffrey Rossman

November 22, 2009, Durham, NC: We in the Triangle area are the fortunate beneficiaries of blatant nepotism as Durham’s Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church continues its twice-yearly presentation of the Borromeo String Quartet. First violinist Nicholas Kitchen is the hometown boy made good, and son of Dorothy and Joseph Kitchen, director of the Duke String School and organist at Saint Stephen’s, respectively. The quartet had been on a three year long plan of playing all of the Beethoven quartets at St. Stephen's, but took a respite from that to present a unique and fascinating program, including an example of Nicholas Kitchen’s talent as an arranger.

Prior to the actual performance, the quartet gave an illuminating and educational talk and demonstration about the central work on the program: Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 4 in C Major. This could have been titled “Bartók Without Tears” since it served its purpose to de-threaten and humanize what is often labeled as one of the most complex quartets of the twentieth century. N. Kitchen was the spokesperson for the group, and he had an instant rapport with the large audience as he not only helped dissect some of the more forbidding aspects of this masterpiece, but told some wonderful stories about Bartók and the compositional process. He also spoke a bit about his soon-to-be heard string quartet arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, originally for organ. With that done, he and his bandmates, second violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist/wife Yeesun Kim packed up for the short walk to the concert venue.

The clearly delineated voices of Bach’s aforementioned organ work fits perfectly for a string quartet, although it is usually brass quintets that tend to get this role. The passacaglia theme is initially set by the cello but Kitchen’s creative arrangement parses out the lines democratically and in a musically satisfying manner. The power and elegance of this work is retained in a stunning performance, and we are left to wait till the last work of the afternoon to hear Dr. Joseph Kitchen play the “real” thing on St. Stephen’s magnificent Flentrop organ.

Much of the music of Haydn is an example of surface simplicity hiding a wealth of meaning, humor and deep emotion. Unfortunately, it is more common than not that performances tend to float along the surface. In their reading of Haydn’s string quartet nicknamed “Sunrise,” the Borromeo Quartet demonstrated how it should be done. Especially telling was the Menuetto movement where their playfulness and joy in playing was infectious.

Since seeing the Borromeos play last year, there have been a few changes in their performance practice. The former configuration (left to right) of violin 1, 2, cello, viola has changed to violin1, cello, viola, violin 2.  Also, where formerly it was just Kitchen, now the whole gang plays from an Apple computer laptop – although Tong still uses old fashioned paper at times. Using a foot pedal for paging, they play from the entire score, not just their individual parts.

Where Haydn needs great musicianship to unveil meaning beneath the simplicity, Bartók is perhaps just the opposite: reveal the connections behind the frightful complexity. For most musicians it would be accomplishment enough to solve the technical and ensemble challenges of Bartók’s fourth string quartet, but that is just the beginning. The Borromeo Quartet revealed all of the myriad influences of Bartók, broke them down and took us on one fantastic trip. The “up” side of this five movement arch composition is in turns aggressive, angry, floating and insect-like. The second movement is a musical depiction of turning on the lights and seeing millions of roaches scurrying about, all played with such astounding presto precision that it paradoxically almost seems static. Cellist Kim gave a wonderfully expressive, vocally inflected turn above the held chords of the others in the reposed apex of the work. The fourth movement is “look ma, no bows” for the entire movement, including the “Bartók pizzicato” effect which brings strings slapping percussively against the fingerboard. The finale is reminiscent in character of the beginning but ratcheted up even more: a pugnacious blitz of testosterone. For those of us who attended the talk prior to the concert, it served as a considerable aid to understanding and appreciating some finer points of this powerful performance.

The sound source now switched from the front to behind us as Joseph Kitchen played the Bach Passacaglia and Fugue on the organ – as the musical god intended. Kitchen played it at a slightly faster tempo than the quartet and it is a testament to the greatness of the Flentrop organ that this could be done without having all the contrapuntal lines end up as one big whirling mush. This caused a few finger fumbles but that paled in comparison to the overall energy and excitement of the entire performance. This is one of Bach’s longer organ works and it’s a challenge to make the repeated theme and variations interesting. Kitchen was wonderfully expressive and also employed the prodigious capability of the instrument to great effect.

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