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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 3

Borromeo Quartet: Beethoven and Beyond

by Lucie Renaud / November 1, 2001

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Formed in 1989 by four young musicians from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, the Borromeo String Quartet is considered one of America’s leading young quartets. While it continues to break new ground with the performance of contemporary works, it is also drawn to the more classical repertoire, especially Beethoven. Winner of the first prize at the 1990 International String Quartet Competition in Evian, France, the quartet pursued this blazing trail, convincing the jury of the 1991 Young Concert Artists International Auditions--in 1992, the winners were the St. Lawrence Quartet. In 1998, the quartet received the prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award. The Quartet is now on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music as Quartet-in-Residence.

What seems most obvious when one listens to the group is how all four personalities of the players shine through on stage. Despite the evident affinity they share with one another, one player’s idea never seems to override the others. As Will Fedkenheuer, the second violonist, put it with much humour, “Quartets require a great deal of flexibility and tolerance. We are all strong-minded and strong-willed individuals who come together to create something we hope is special. We are four equal partners in crime. This requires a great deal of rehearsal, as well as discussion, arguments and of course, food!”

The quartet completed its first Beethoven Cycle in the spring of 2000 and will soon be releasing a first CD of Beethoven’s Quartets (Op. 59 No. 3 and Op. 95). These works, used as standards for comparison, seem to fall especially close to the heart of all the players in the group. Mai Motobuchi, the violist, maintains that these quartets are the main reason why she became a quartet player. “To me, they are the most powerful and beautiful music in the world as a listener and a player,” she marvels. “The longer we spend with the music, the more incredible it becomes.”

Despite the enormous corpus of recordings available, the players don’t have any trouble finding new perspectives on this immense musical legacy. “The freshness of the Beethoven Quartets is fortunately written into the music itself,” responds Nicholas Kitchen, the first violinist. “The immensity of talent which makes Beethoven capable of capturing so much energy in a musical idea and the determination and capacity which Beethoven shows in letting each of these musical ideas propel its own dialogue, means that the pieces we deal with are enormous repositories of musical energy and thought. Every investigation of the piece reactivates the life of this dialogue and has the chance to bring all of this energy into meaningful interaction. Human birth is necessarily the most common of experiences, but its nature makes us perceive its miracle every time it occurs. The Beethoven Quartets are similar in that the ideas have such a high energy content and are developed with such a vigorous and profound insight that there is always a sense that one has not exhausted the potential for discovery.” Mai brings an almost mystical point of view, “ Learning Beethoven Quartets is like bible study for me. Each reader has a different view and we all search for years and years to look for an answer. By doing a cycle, we are able to see the whole picture of Beethoven’s mind and how it develops within them. By doing a cycle in different years, we are able to let it sit in our mind and glow, like a fine bottle of wine. Hopefully when we come back to it a year later, we have completely different and better views.”

The experience for the listener should also be renewed with each performance of the works. “No matter how many times you perform or study the score,” says Fedkenheuer, the young Canadian who joined the group just last year, “there seems to be always something new you either never heard before, or thought about in quite that way. The many different versions attest to the fact that many quartets are still discovering this music throughout their lifetime. Their importance as a cycle is immeasurable. I would venture that anyone who has listened to a complete cycle would agree that individually they are each their own masterwork . As a cycle, each adds to the power (musically and emotionally) of the others. The relationships within each work extend beyond into each of the other works and it is quite exciting to discover these connections”.

Nicholas Kitchen, one of the founding members of the quartet, has been known to address the audience before the concert to make them understand the works more thoroughly. The future of the string quartets’ world doesn’t seem to worry him much. Regarding the blossoming of interest for the medium in recent years, he feels it has much to do with attitudes towards authority. “I think perhaps unconsciously there are many listeners who are mildly discouraged with or tired of the glamorous social event of the orchestra concert and feel a more honest connection to what they feel they might hear in a string quartet concert,” he told La Scena . “The imagery and reality which are involved in orchestra playing revolve around the authority of the conductor and the mastery of the orchestral machine by both composer and conductor. The string quartet represents an intense experience of virtuosity being handled and interwoven on a personal scale. Once open to it, many audience members may find the world of string quartet playing more fascinating to watch and participate in than the grand motions of the orchestra. The beauty of the great masterpieces for string quartets contains all the range of the very best in art music. The interest of the great creators of music was, it seems, stimulated just as significantly by the personal dialogues of string quartet as by the larger symphonic forms. In the more intimate environment of a chamber music concert the audience is brought into a proximity with the creation of the music where they can really feel a personal involvement with every detail. I think these are some of the reasons why the artistic vehicle of string quartet has a growing appeal in the musical world of today.”

Chamber music could very well be the fastest way to the audience’s heart, as long as dedicated musicians keep on believing that anything is possible.

Due to the recent events, the release of the Beethoven CD might be slightly delayed. For more information, visit the quartet web page at <www.borromeoquartet.org>.

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