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MASKED SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY CARRIES ON BRILLIANTLY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 15, 2020
In some ways the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 15 concert on YouTube resembled a Conceptual Art performance from the 1970s. On display were about 30 masked orchestral musicians playing six feet apart from each other on stage, some of them separated by plexiglass barriers. In the 1970s, the concept behi...
Chamber
SPLENDID STRINGS IN A SUNLIT GARDEN
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 1, 2020
A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, a Marin County garden and six superb string players from the Santa Rosa Symphony were manna from heaven to a pandemic-weary audience starved for live music. The sextet of Santa Rosa Symphony musicians performed to a small group of 20 Nov. 1, the day after Halloween....
Chamber
EXAMPLARY QUARTET PLAYING IN MARIN GARDEN CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, October 22, 2020
Taped video concerts have pretty much dominated the recent fare for classical music fans, but sporadic live music making can still be found in the North Bay with outdoor chamber music. Of course with the obligatory social distancing and often decorative facial masks. Four San Francisco Opera Orc...
Chamber
VIDEO CHAMBER MUSIC FROM LINCOLN CENTER IN GREEN'S BROADCAST
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, October 17, 2020
Along with hosting its resident the Santa Rosa Symphony, Weill Hall has contracted to produce sporadic virtual programs of classical music, and began Oct. 17 with a charming three-part concert from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York. Hosted with comely introductions by CMSLC di...
Symphony
THRILLING SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY PERFORMANCE IN AN EMPTY WEILL HALL
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 11, 2020
Viewers of the Santa Rosa Symphony’s inaugural socially distanced YouTube concert on Oct. 11 could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon a performance of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (A Masked Ball), given that the string players in the opening shot all wore black masks. The sole excepti...
Symphony
BROWN VIDEO GALA LAUNCHES SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY SEASON
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 12, 2020
Similar to many North Coast musical organizations the Santa Rosa Symphony has scheduled a series of virtual concerts on video, spotlighting sections of the orchestra and the exuberant activities of its conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong. However, as an introduction to the season, a Sept. 12 gala vide...
SONGS AND ECHOES OF HOME IN AIZURI QUARTET CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, March 8, 2020
From the first richly layered harmonies of Dvořák’s Cypresses, the Aizuri Quartet held the March 8th audience at Mt. Tamalpais Methodist Church in thrall. The church was more than half full, a good crowd considering present anxiety about the spread of the coronavirus. Taking precautions, the M...
COLORFUL BORN BACH AT AGAVE BAROQUE'S SCHROEDER HALL CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Friday, February 28, 2020
Bach’s obituary records that “Johann Sebastian Bach belongs to a family that seems to have received a love and aptitude for music as a gift of Nature to all its members in common.” Agave Baroque presented their Feb. 28 concert, Born Bach, as a partial musical story of several generations in this rem...
ECLECTIC VIOLIN AND PIANO WORKS IN VIRTUOSIC MILL VALLEY RECITAL
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, February 23, 2020
Blending virtuosity with sublime artistry, violinist Alexander Sitkovetsky and pianist Wu Qian gave the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society audience many thrills February 23, performing four muscular and soulful works by four composers from four countries: de Falla, Schumann, Stravinsky, and Grieg. T...
PREMIER OF KAIZEN AND DRAMATIC MOZART HIGHLIGHT ECHO CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, February 16, 2020
As concertgoers took their seats in San Anselmo’s First Presbyterian Church for ECHO Chamber Orchestra’s February 16 program, they were surprised to see at center stage two bass drums, a tom-tom, bongos, high hat and cymbals. It was the occasion of the world premiere of "Kaizen," composed and perf...
CHAMBER REVIEW
Redwood Arts Council / Saturday, March 31, 2012
Borromeo String Quartet

The Borromeo String Quartet

BEETHOVEN ON PARADE

by Steve Osborn
Saturday, March 31, 2012

Movies have subtitles and operas have supertitles, but the Borromeo String Quartet has metatitles--titles so substantial that they replicate the entire performance, just within sight of the actual performers. Instead of words, the “metatitles” (i.e., the musical score projected on a screen) contain the actual notes the musicians are playing, allowing music readers to “follow along in the score” as the performance unfolds.

Following along in the score is something that music aficionados sometimes do while listening to recordings on their home stereo systems; but following along during an actual performance is an entirely different matter. Are you supposed to look at the score, or at the players? Which one is more worthy of your attention? Does the experience heighten your appreciation of the music, or is it just a gimmick?

Answers to those questions will probably vary among audience members, but for me the experience was by turns educational, revelatory and distracting. At their performance in Occidental on March 31, the Borromeo played the first half without metatitles but spent the entirety of the second in the shadow of the musical score.

First things first. “At rise,” as they say in the theater, the stage contained the standard four chairs and four music stands of a string quartet performance. Instead of sheet music, however, the stands held Macbook Pro laptop computers, with the iconic apples shining through their backs. To the right of the chairs and stands hung a classroom-sized movie screen, maybe 10 feet wide and six feet tall. At the back of the small auditorium, a digital projector stood ready to project images on the screen.

When the Borromeo settled into their chairs, yet another innovation leaped into view. The violist, who usually sits on the right, with f-holes facing the back of the stage, was positioned next to the first violinist, with f-holes facing the audience. Violists in orchestras and chamber ensembles have long pined for this prominent placement, so here it was at last. Meanwhile, the second violinist cheerfully occupied the violist’s spot on the far right of the quartet.

The affable first violinist, Nicholas Kitchen, said a few words about the unusual setup, and then the quartet launched into a transcription of the fugue in C-sharp minor from Book 1 of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.” At first glance, transcriptions of four-part keyboard fugues seem like a natural for string quartets, but appearances are deceiving. The lines, after all, were originally written for keyboards, not string instruments, and in this performance, they often sounded forced and artificial. The minimal use of vibrato and other string techniques only heightened the artificial feel.

Matters took a turn for the worse in the next transcription, of Bach’s “St. Anne” fugue for organ. Here the pedal points and vast array of organ stops were sorely missed. In a “battle of the bands,” there’s no way a string quartet can match the sonic thunder of an organ, so why bother?

The next offering was more suited for the musicians at hand, being an actual string quartet--the String Quartet No. 2, by the contemporary American composer Stephen Jaffe, subtitled “Aeolian and Sylvan Figures.” As implied by the title, the five-movement work was full of the sounds of wind, trees, birds and other pastoral delights. Much of the writing seemed intended to approximate sounds of the natural world, from the “sylvan figures” of the first movement, to the “scherzino chickadee,” to the “push me pull you” suggestiveness of the last.

Jaffe’s music is quite melodic and playful, with many inventive turns of phrase and a wide sonic palette. Harmonics in particular gave the quartet an ethereal feel, although more solidity in the structure might have benefited the work as a whole.

During intermission, the full house milled about the snack bar and the adjacent gallery, which featured paintings of fools, in anticipation of Occidental’s annual April Fool’s Day parade.

The metatitles were finally unveiled in the second half, along with an engrossing introduction from Kitchen, who explained that the group had downloaded the scanned manuscript of Beethoven’s third Razumovsky quartet (Op. 59, No. 3) from the IMSLP website. The manuscript is to a standard performance score what a handwritten draft is to a published book. In other words, it’s a mess.

Kitchen acknowledged the difficulties of reading the manuscript but said those were more than balanced by the revelations, including Beethoven’s edits, erasures, false starts and the like. Kitchen made it clear that what the audience was seeing on the screen was exactly the same image displayed on the quartet’s computers. The final trick in this technological marvel was that Kitchen turned “pages” by pressing a foot pedal.

When the Borromeo finally got down to playing the first movement, my eyes were glued to the screen. Following along was difficult at first, but I soon got the hang of it and found myself thunderstruck by the true technological marvel on display--the notion that Beethoven or some other musical genius can hear sounds in his head and set them to paper with a few strokes of a pen. Moreover, the notes coming out of the adjacent instruments matched the score perfectly, with nary an error.

During the second movement, I alternated between the score and the Borromeo, finally settling on the latter, whose performance invested the score with palpable drama. The movement, a gracious minuet, is all about “subito forte,” moments where the volume suddenly swells and then reverts to quietude. The Borromeo played these with breathtaking intensity.

The third movement was fast, but the fourth set land-speed records. It was an utterly gripping performance, from the hushed but frenetic viola entrance, through the long crescendo, to the triumphant fortissimo. Through it all, Kitchen in particular seemed supremely relaxed, his facial expressions reflecting the many twists and turns of the first violin’s virtuosic lines.

At the end, the audience rose as one for a sustained ovation, and I realized that I hadn’t even looked at the screen for the last two movements. In this peculiar tug-of-war between score and performer, the performers won. The subsequent encore--yet another transcription, this time of a Bill Evans tune--was anticlimactic.