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Symphony
SANTA ROSA SYMPHONY STAYS CLOSE TO HOME
by Steve Osborn
Sunday, March 26, 2017
Santa Rosa Symphony concerts usually feature high-powered soloists imported from afar, but for their recent “Bring on the Strings” concert set, they stuck close to home, thrusting their principal violin, viola and cello into the limelight. The violinist (Joseph Edelberg) and the violist (Elizabeth P...
Recital
SLAM BANG SONORITY IN HAOCHEN ZHANG'S SCHROEDER RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 19, 2017
Piano Competition winners are in ample supply, and it’s often a hit and miss proposition as to their sterling interpretative qualities. However, the quadrennial Van Cliburn Competition in Ft. Worth has continually produced top-level artists, and the 2009 winner Haochen Zhang proved a formidable per...
Symphony
FOREIGN AFFAIRS CHARACTERS OF THE BAROQUE
by Sonia Morse Tubridy
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin, known as Akamus, played a Weill Hall concert March 12 in a program called "Foreign Affairs -Characters of the Baroque.” The ensemble, that began in 1984, has 15 musicians led by concert master Bernhard Forck. Attired in elegant black with red accents, ranging from tie...
Recital
MUSCULAR PIANISM DOMINATES MILL VALLEY CHAMBER SOCIETY RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, March 12, 2017
Piano recitals since the beginning of the genre open with finger pieces - Scarlatti or Soler Sonatas, Bach, a Mendelssohn Prelude and Fugue or perhaps Mozart or Haydn. Sarah Daneshpour’s March 12 opening work at the Mill Valley Chamber Music Society series abruptly avoided the norm with the 10-minut...
Recital
NOVEL HAYDN AND SCHUMANN IN YARDEN'S OAKMONT RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Thursday, March 09, 2017
Israeli pianist Einav Yarden has been a frequent Sonoma County visitor, playing private recitals for Spring Lake Village and Concerts Grand, and twice performing for Music at Oakmont. The Berlin-based artist returned to Oakmont’s Berger Auditorium March 9 with a program that was neither for connois...
Chamber
CONSUMMATE ENSEMBLE FROM THE MIRÓ IN WEILL
by Sonia Tubridy and Nicki Bell
Sunday, March 05, 2017
A March 5 Weill hall audience of 350 leaned in to share an intimate musical space and to hear the Miró String Quartet’s sterling concert. Starting with Haydn's Op. 20, No. 4, the four musicians seemed to want listeners to be enveloped in their music. The Miró plays with the feat of being four dist...
Recital
BRILLIANT VIOLIN AND PIANO ARTISTRY CHARMS SCHROEDER HALL AUDIENCE
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 26, 2017
A tiny Schroeder Hall audience heard a flawless recital Feb. 26 by Yu-Chien Tseng, arguably the best recent local violin recital since Gil Shaham’s transversal of the complete Bach Suites in Weill and Frank Almond’s Oakmont recital in 2015. Muscular playing was the afternoon’s norm, and with pianis...
Chamber
MUSIC AND ART MELD IN ZUCKERMAN TRIO CONCERT
by Nicki Bell
Friday, February 24, 2017
A Feb. 24 Weill Hall concert by the Pinchas Zuckerman Trio juxtaposed formidable music making with palpable associations about visual art. Brahms’ C Minor "Sonatensatz” (Scherzo) is a short youthful work for violin and piano, and was an opening call to action. Lively and vigorous playing alternated...
Chamber
THREE BEETHOVEN TRIOS BEGUILE AUDIENCE IN FEB. 19 WEILL CONCERT
by Terry McNeill
Sunday, February 19, 2017
Chamber music concerts featuring one composer can be tricky, but the Han/Setzer/Finckel trio made a Feb. 19 Weill Hall audience of 500 hear and to a degree see the boundless creativity of Beethoven. The G Major Trio, Op. 1, No. 2, opened the afternoon’s Beethoven odyssey and one wonders why it is t...
Chamber
AUTHORITATIVE BARTOK HIGHLIGHTS TETZLAFF VIOLIN RECITAL
by Terry McNeill
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Christian Tetzlaff’s Feb. 18 violin recital rolled along with lively and fresh readings of Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert when the specter of Bartok’s granitic Second Sonata intervened. The sonic shock to the audience of 250 in Weill was palpable. Composed in 1923 the 20-minute two-movement work i...
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.