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Symphony
CONDUCTOR PLAYOFFS BEGIN IN SANTA ROSA
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, October 08, 2017
The Santa Rosa Symphony is calling 2017-18 “a choice season” because the next few months offer the audience and the symphony’s board of directors a chance to choose a new conductor from a pool of five candidates. Each candidate will lead a three-concert weekend set this fall and winter, with a final...
Symphony
DVORAK AND TCHAIKOVSKY ORCHESTRAL COLOR AT SO CO PHIL SEASON OPENER
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, September 30, 2017
A concert with curious repertoire and splashy orchestral color launched the 19th season of the Sonoma County Philharmonic Sept. 30 in Santa Rosa High School’s Auditorium. Why curious? Conductor Norman Gamboa paired the ever-popular Dvorak and his rarely heard 1891 trilogy In Nature’s Realm, with t...
Recital
ELEGANT PIANISM IN WATER MUSIC CHARMS HOUSE RECITAL AUDIENCE
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, September 03, 2017
A standard component of house concerts often involve listeners hearing the music but also smelling the lasagna and seeing the champagne in the adjacent kitchen. But it was not the case Sept. 3 at Sandra Shen’s Concerts Grand House Recital performance, as her riveting piano playing enthralled the sm...
Chamber
YOUNG MUSICIANS SHINE AT PIANO SONOMA CONCERT
by Lee Ormasa
Tuesday, August 01, 2017
The third in a series of four concerts by Piano Sonoma artists in residence, part of the Vino and Vibrato Series, was held August 1 in Schroeder Hall at the Green Music Center. Entitled “The Masters,” the program included works by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn. Piano Sonoma is a summer artist-in...
Chamber
THRILLING PROGRAM CLOSES VOM CHAMBER FESTIVAL AT HANNA CENTER
by Lee Ormasa
Sunday, July 30, 2017
The finale of the two-week Valley of the Moon Music Festival closed July 30 with “The Age of Bravura” concert at the Sonoma’s Hanna Boys Center. The musical selections held to this year’s Festival theme “Schumann’s World - His Music and the Music He Loved.“ This summer Festival features chamber mus...
Chamber
PERIOD INSTRUMENTAL SOUND AT PENULTIMATE VOM FESTIVAL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, July 30, 2017
In the Valley of the Moon Chamber Music Festival’s penultimate concert July 30 the perennial issue of period and modern instruments was apparent. But only in the concluding Mendelssohn Trio, as the performances in the two first half works easily avoided instrumental comparisons. Clara Schumann’s t...
Chamber
ECLECTIC REPERTOIRE IN FETCHING VOM FESTIVAL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, July 22, 2017
One of the purposes of summer music festivals is to present unfamiliar music in an attractive and often small audience setting. The Valley of the Moon Music Festival delightfully met these requirements July 22 and 23 with two concerts in the small hall at Sonoma’s Hanna Boys Center. Classical Sono...
Recital
ADAMS' PHRYGIAN GATES HIGHLIGHTS MORKOSKI FESTIVAL PERFORMANCE
by Lee Ormasa
Saturday, July 22, 2017
Attendees at the Molly Morkoski Mendocino Music Festival recital July 22 were in for a treat, both pianistically and if they happened to buy a tasty cookie during intermission. The program included Beethoven’s Op. 27 Moonlight Sonata, Adams’ Phrygian Gates, a surprise add-on of Grieg’s Holberg Suit...
Symphony
SOARING VERDI REQUIEM CLOSES 31ST MENDOCINO FESTIVAL
by Lee Ormasa
Saturday, July 22, 2017
We speak frequently about how there is nothing like the experience of a live performance. Seldom was this truer than at the July 22 closing performance of the two-week Mendocino Music Festival. The Festival Orchestra, conducted by of Allan Pollack, joined with the Festival Chorus in a moving renderi...
Recital
ORGAN REGISTRATION MASTERY HEARD IN WALHAIN'S RECITAL
by Robert Young
Tuesday, July 18, 2017
A group of 65 lucky attendees July 18 had the pleasure of hearing Etienne Walhain’s recital at the Church of the Incarnation in Santa Rosa. Mr. Walhain is organist at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Tournai, Belgium, and played to a varied program Bach, Franck, and Reger. He used the tonal resource...
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.