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Symphony
A SLICE OF HEAVEN FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, January 13, 2019
Under its vibrant new music director, Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Santa Rosa Symphony this past Sunday offered a nearly perfect afternoon of Mozart (Symphony No. 40) and Mahler (Symphony No. 4). While the two works share a common digit, the only element uniting them is genius. They made for a dazzlin...
Chamber
A COMPLETE MUSICAL PACKAGE IN ARRON'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Cellist Edward Arron has been a welcome artist at the Music at Oakmont series, and after his Jan. 10 recital it’s easy to understand his popularity. His artistry is a complete package, with potent instrumental technique wedded to integral musical conceptions. In a nearly flawless concert with pian...
Choral and Vocal
COMPELLING WEILL HALL MESSIAH ORATORIO FROM THE ABS
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, December 15, 2018
Each holiday season when a Classical Sonoma reviewer is assigned to cover a concert with Handel’s seminal Oratorio The Messiah, the question arises about what new commentary can possibly apply to the often performed choral work. Well, if it’s the American Bach Soloists performing the piece, written...
Opera
PURCELL'S DIDO IN YOUTHFUL SSU OPERA
by Abby Wasserman
Wednesday, December 05, 2018
A doomed royal love affair, the theme of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, was brought to lovely life at Sonoma State University Dec. 5 in the school’s Schroeder Hall. Conducted by faculty member Zachary Gordin, who also played continuo, the performance was only the second opera production presented by the...
Symphony
SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY HERALDS THE HOLIDAYS
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, December 02, 2018
Antlers are typical headgear during the holiday season, but the ushers and one bassist at the Santa Rosa Symphony concert on Dec. 2 sported apples atop their heads. The red fruits were festive but perplexing until the orchestra began Rossini’s “William Tell” overture, at which point even the dull-wi...
Symphony
A HERO'S ODYSSEY IN SO CO PHIL CONCERT
by Art Hofmann
Sunday, November 18, 2018
The audience at the Sonoma County Philharmonic’s Nov. 18 concert was warned at the outset that the old Santa Rosa High School auditorium boiler was turned off, and there was a steady eminently audible tone in the hall. Conductor Norman Gamboa said the tone was an A, a high one. But there it was, a...
Recital
MTA BENEFIT CONCERT FEATURES FAURE, DVORAK, JANACEK AND BARBER WORKS
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, November 11, 2018
In a splendid concert Nov. 11 the Music Teachers Association of California, Sonoma County Chapter, presented their sixth annual benefit concert before 40 avid listeners in the Santa Rosa home of Helen Howard and Robert Yeats. Highlights of the performances, involving eight musicians in various perf...
Recital
SERKIN'S SINGULAR MOZART AND BACH PLAYING IN WEILL RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Friday, November 09, 2018
Returning to Weill Hall following a fire-related recital cancellation in 2017, pianist Peter Serkin programmed just three works in his Nov. 7 concert, three masterworks that challenged both artist and audience alike. It needs to be said at the outset that Mr. Serkin takes a decidedly non-standard a...
Chamber
LUMINOUS FAURE TOPS LINCOLN TRIO'S SPRING LAKE VILLAGE CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Wednesday, November 07, 2018
Familiarity in chamber music often evokes warm appreciation, and it was thus Nov. 7 when the Chicago-based Lincoln Piano Trio made one of their many Sonoma County appearances, this time on the Spring Lake Village Classical Music Series. Regularly presented by local impresario Robert Hayden, the Lin...
Symphony
PEACE AND LOVE FROM THE SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, November 04, 2018
Before the Santa Rosa Symphony’s Nov. 4 performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Symphonic Dances from West Side Story,” Symphony CEO Alan Silow took a moment to acknowledge the victims of the Pittsburgh synagogue attack and to observe that music offers a more peaceful and loving view of the world. Mr. ...
CHAMBER REVIEW
Russian River Chamber Music / Saturday, February 23, 2008
Borromeo String Quartet

The Borromeo String Quartet

ISLANDS IN THE STREAM

by Steve Osborn
Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Borromean Islands consist of three small islands and two islets in Lake Maggiore, near the town of Stresa, in northern Italy. In this beautiful location almost 20 years ago, four young musicians from the Curtis Institute decided to form a string quartet. They settled on the serendipitous name of Borromeo, a reference not only to the islands but also to the illustrious Italian family that has owned most of the outcroppings since the fourteenth century.

"Borromeo" has four syllables that blend together seamlessly to form a single word that seems to glide off the tongue, free of any glottal stops or harsh consonants. Likewise, the four players of the Borromeo String Quartet blend together to create a sound that is unequalled in its unanimity, fluidity, and grace. Their performance for the Russian River Chamber Music series on Feb. 23 was nothing short of magnificent, one of the best concerts I've ever heard.

The four members of the quartet--only two of whom are from the original group--present a striking image on the stage. The first and second violins, both men, sit on piano benches, a seating option normally reserved for cellists. The first violin, Nicholas Kitchen, of average build and height, nearly blocks the view of the rail-thin and youthful second, Kristopher Tong. The female contingent sits in ordinary chairs on the other side of the stage, with the intensely expressive violist Mai Motobuchi on the outside and the implacable cellist Yeesun Kim near the center of the action.

The concert opened with Beethoven's Opus 18, number 3, perhaps the most virtuosic of his early quartets, with a fiendishly difficult first-violin part. Kitchen dashed off his opening runs without breaking a sweat, but attention soon focused on the violist Motobuchi, who leaned into the center of the quartet, her eyes peeled and ever-widening, a gaze from which nothing escaped. Swaying back, forth, in, and out, she placed her instrument's complementary lines right between the soaring violins and the solid cello. She plays an extra-wide viola that produces a distinctive sound, neither shrill nor booming. It was a perfect match to her colleagues: a polyphony of tone as well as range.

Every aspect of the Beethoven was superb, from the beautiful legato in the second movement, to the elegance of the third, and the breathtaking pace of the last. The most distinctive feature, however, was the outstanding blend. Every part could be heard, with each player laying back or coming forward as the music required. The sforzandos and subito pianos were played to maximum dramatic effect, and the dynamics throughout were harnessed to a compelling narrative line. Beethoven's early quartets capture the fervor of youth, and all four players reflected that spirit, none more so than Tong, who literally threw himself into the part, at times rocking back on his bench with such force that one hoped he wouldn't fall over.

The genius of Beethoven carried over into the next piece, an extraordinary string quartet by the contemporary American composer Pierre Jalbert, born in 1967. Composed in 1995, when Jalbert was still in his twenties, the quartet is equal parts Jimi Hendrix, ethereal harmonics, and unusual glass-rod bowing. As explained by first-violinist Kitchen in a helpful introduction, the composition won the first annual Borromeo Quartet award from Copland House, a center for new music north of New York City. Kitchen described the Jalbert quartet as "very natural music" that reflects the composer's culture and upbringing. The first movement is "car horn music": when you're stuck in a traffic jam, your best option is to enjoy the honks. The second movement, marked "barbaric, driving; scherzando," is inspired by Hendrix; and the third is a hymn, complete with glass rods.

The performance was all of the above and more. The first movement did indeed evoke car horns; but it also offered the opposite, in the form of an absolute pianissimo fortified by an unerring unanimity of sound. For the second movement, the players obeyed Hendrix's injunction to "move over Rover, and let Jimi take over." A spectacular viola solo was followed by extended trills from all players above a solid rock-like beat. The range of sound was remarkable, as was the level of energy sustained throughout.

After the palpable intensity of the second movement, the third offered welcome sonic relief. It began not with the quartet per se but rather with the sound of rain falling heavily on the roof. This normally unwelcome intrusion merely added to the cornucopia of sound subsequently produced by the players. Harmonics appeared again, along with the unearthly glass rods; but the predominant sound was the gorgeous unanimity of tone and the perfect blend of all four parts. Jalbert is clearly a composer of great talent, and he has found a strong advocate in the Borromeo Quartet.

The second half consisted of Schumann's quartet in A minor, a real showcase for the viola, which gets to start most of the melodies and plays in almost every bar. It was Schumann, after all, who wrote one of the few great viola pieces (the M'rchenbilder), and the dark-toned instrument is often reflective of his tortured soul.

Every movement was great, but the galloping horses of the second-movement scherzo were particularly impressive, as was the haunting cello solo in the third. Matters came to a head in the final movement, with its mercurial moods and its manic-depressive pace. Both violinists dug into their solos, playing with unbridled passion and energy. The final section was a genuine revelation. If ever a quartet offered a window into a composer's soul, this was it.

The instantaneous standing ovation was followed by a pleasant reception at the Flying Goat, in downtown Healdsburg. A better evening of music and festivities is hard to imagine. Russian River Chamber Music, led by artistic director Gary McLaughlin, is to be commended for their efforts to bring great musicians to Sonoma County. In this case, the musicians were world-class.