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Opera
SPARKLING CIMAROSA OPERA HIGHLIGHTS MENDOCINO MUSIC FESTIVAL
by Kathryn Stewart
Friday, July 13, 2018
The Classical music era was a time of extraordinary innovation. Dominated by composers from the German-speaking countries, the period witnessed the handiwork of masterpieces by two classical giants, Haydn and Mozart. Both composers put forth a tremendous catalog of masterful works and perhaps to our...
Symphony
!PURA VIDA! A SONIC TRIUMPH FOR SO CO PHIL IN THRILLING COSTA RICA TOUR CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Long anticipated events, such as a great sporting game, gourmet feast, holiday trip or a concert, occasionally fall way short of expectations. The results don’t measure to expectations. With the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Costa Rica concert June 19, the performance exceeded any heated or tenuou...
Symphony
SO CO PHIL BON VOYAGE CONCERT AN ODYSSEY OF CONTRASTING SOUND
by Terry McNeill
Friday, June 15, 2018
In a splashy bon voyage concert June 15 the Sonoma County Philharmonic Orchestra launched its June 17-25 Costa Rica tour, performing gratis in Santa Rosa’s Jackson Theater the repertoire for tour concerts in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, and in surrounding towns. Conductor Norman Gamboa pr...
Chamber
COMMANDING CHOPIN AND DEBUSSY IN SLV RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, June 06, 2018
Concerts at the classy Spring Lake Village Retirement Home in Santa Rosa have admission limited to residents and a few guests, but the chance to hear a first cabin North Bay pianist June 6 brought a Classical Sonoma reviewer into the audience of 100. The crowd numbers were unusually low due to a ba...
Recital
MUSICAL ALCHEMY INSIDE A HIDDEN GEM
by Kayleen Asbo
Friday, May 25, 2018
The Petaluma Historical Library and Museum is a hidden gem of Sonoma County, a gracious building that is one of Sonoma County’s loveliest venues for chamber music concerts, with a fine period piano particularly suited to Romantic music.  Of the surprisingly large array of festivities there, one of t...
Chamber
FINAL VOM MUSICIANS CONCERT IN SCHROEDER A SCHUBERT DELIGHT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, May 12, 2018
It's rare to have the opportunity to compare in a short period two performances of the same major Schubert work, in this case the great B Flat Piano Trio, D. 898. The chance came May 12 when the Valley of the Moon Festival musicians played it in Schroeder, just over a month since the Hall’s residen...
Symphony
FERRANDIS BIDS ADIEU WITH MAHLER’S FINAL SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, May 06, 2018
Sonoma State students in graduation robes posed for pictures and hugged each other at the university’s stone gates on Sunday afternoon, mirroring the prolonged farewells within the university’s Green Music Center, where Bruno Ferrandis bid adieu to the Santa Rosa Symphony after a dozen years at the ...
Symphony
SONIC SPLENDOR AT MARIN SYMPHONY SEASON FINALE
by Abby Wasserman
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
The Marin Symphony Orchestra ended the current season with a flourish, interpreting big and small works by Richard Strauss and Stravinsky. Strauss and Stravinsky were contemporaries for 40 years, but inhabited different worlds. Both composers were affected by cataclysmic changes and war, and musical...
Symphony
ORGAN SYMPHONY IN SSU ORCHESTRA CONCERT IN WEILL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, April 29, 2018
Though Classical Sonoma seldom reviews student concerts, as ample North Coast concerts keep the staff of 11 reviewers busy. But the chance to hear the Sonoma State University Orchestra tackle St. Saëns’ majestic Organ Symphony April 29 was a rare opportunity and not easily to be missed. Avec l’...
Recital
HEAVENLY SCHUBERT AND DEMONIC CHOPIN
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, April 21, 2018
One of the anomalies in the long ago “Golden Era” of romantic pianism (about 1905 to 1940) is that the virtuoso giants of the time didn’t play Schubert. It took the German pianist Artur Schnabel to bring the beauties of Schuber’s work to the public’s attention, and now they seem to be on almost ever...
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.