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Chamber
BEETHOVEN FEATURED IN SF TRIO'S OCCIDENTAL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, January 19, 2020
Conventional repertoire in uncommonly good performances highlighted the San Francisco Piano Trio’s Jan. 19 concert in the Occidental Center for the Arts. Haydn’s No. 44 Trio (Hob. XV:28) came from late in his long career, when he was in and out of London, and received a sparkling reading that featu...
SIMONE PORTER ASPIRES TO STARDOM WITH SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 12, 2020
The Sibelius violin concerto is one of several mountains that violin soloists need to ascend before they can lay claim to stardom. Hundreds make the attempt every year, but only a few reach the top. Simone Porter, who played the concerto with the Santa Rosa Symphony on Sunday afternoon, got close bu...
Choral and Vocal
ORPHEUS OF AMSTERDAM'S MUSIC IN SCHROEDER ORGAN CHORAL CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Friday, January 10, 2020
“All over the map.” Sonoma Bach, directed by Bob Worth, has taken its audiences this season on journeys through many centuries and many lands. The programming is fresh and intriguing and the performers varied and creators of beauty and interest. The January 10 program was centered on organ works by...
Choral and Vocal
OLD NORTH GERMAN CAROLS IN SONOMA BACH'S SCHROEDER CONCERT
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, December 15, 2019
“Cast off all sorrows…also dance in heavenly fashion.” A volume called Piae Cantiones was printed in 1582 in North Germany, lively songs going back to the 14th century, and this treasure trove provided material for numerous composers to arrange Christmas carols over following generations, from simp...
Symphony
EVERLASTING LIGHT AT SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Monday, December 09, 2019
The Mozart Requiem includes four intermittent vocal soloists, but the real star is the choir, which is featured in almost every movement. That stardom shone bright at the Santa Rosa Symphony’s memorable Requiem performance on Monday night. The soloists were good, but the choir was superb. Located wi...
Symphony
UNFINISHED AND FINNISH
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, December 08, 2019
Having a new resident conductor on the podium for the Ukiah Symphony was an attractive invitation for a long-delayed visit to Mendocino College’s Center Theater Dec. 8. The insouciant Les Pfutzenreuter recently retired after decades of conducting the ensemble, replaced by Phillip Lenberg who also j...
Choral and Vocal
PRAERTORIUS IN RENAISSANCE GLORY FROM SONOMA BACH
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Saturday, November 16, 2019
Sonoma Bach Choir, in collaboration with Barefoot All-Stars Viol Consort and The Whole Noyse Brass Ensemble, presented “Sing Glorious Praetorius!” November 16 to an almost full Schroeder Hall at the Green Music Center. The Soloists were soprano Dianna Morgan, Christopher Fritzsche, (countertenor), m...
Symphony
ECLECTIC INSTRUMENTAL EXCITEMENT IN SO CO PHIL CONCERT IN JACKSON
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, November 16, 2019
Beginning with a scintillating reading of Rossini’s Overture to the Opera “Semiramide,” the Sonoma County Philharmonic performed a splendid program Nov. 16 in the Jackson Theater, and featured two additional works, one showcasing the winner of the San Francisco Conservatory’s Young Artist Award. It...
Chamber
SPIRITUAL LATE BEETHOVEN QUARTET HIGHLIGHTS MILL VALLEY CHAMBER CONCERT
by Abby Wasserman
Sunday, November 10, 2019
Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, called “unparalleled in its inexhaustibility” by critic Thomas May, is a daunting challenge. Orchestral in concept, filled with wit and charm, melancholy and fury, it almost overwhelms listeners. Playing the frenetic Scherzo, a viol...
Symphony
MUSICAL EXTRAVAGANCE IN UNIQUE SRS CONCERT IN WEILL HALL
by Terry McNeill
Monday, November 04, 2019
It was a concert full of surprises Nov. 4 as the Santa Rosa Symphony responded to the area’s wild fires and evacuations with challenging, songful and somewhat unique music in Weill Hall. The last of a three-concert series titled "Master of the Modern Banjo" is reviewed here. The evening began with...
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.