Borromeo Quartet mixes classical with technology

The string quartet is one of the bastions of classical music. These four instruments of the same family have a blend and symmetry which produce a sound and image that many consider to be the purest form of chamber music. When anyone messes with the tradition, say by having members of the quartet stand instead of sit, as the famous Emerson Quartet does, there is a bit of an uproar. Needless to say, the audience at Brooks-Rogers Hall Friday night was perplexed by the three Macbooks perched atop the Borromeo String Quartet’s music stands.

While the laptops made a statement about the quartet’s forward-thinking approach, they also served a functional purpose, as they displayed the music in full score format rather than one single part, and also eliminated the bane of pesky page turns. Ironically, the youngest member of the quartet, the second violinist, was the only one who stuck with regular sheet music.

The ability to see exactly what every member is playing at all times can be helpful in terms of better understanding how one’s part relates to the rest of the group, and the Borromeo’s masterful performance reflected a deep insight into each piece’s inner workings.

However, the laptops did have a certain negative aesthetic effect. Just as in real life, when our cell phones and iPods can make us seem physically disconnected from the rest of the world, the string quartet stared at their screens far more than they looked up at each other. Amazingly, this did not affect their precision, and at times the seamless flow from one player to another made it seem like only one person was playing when in fact it was two or three.

The only noticeable technical consequence that I could detect was one awkward transition in the Presto movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. Eye contact means more than simply locking in a rhythm with another player, however – it conveys to the audience the real spirit of chamber music, the idea that the players are conversing with one another through their music.

Despite the lack of eye-to-eye communication, the quartet beautifully blended tones without diminishing each individual player’s voice. Each player deftly maneuvered from accompaniment to solo without straying outside the unified sound of the group.

They opened the concert with Charles Ives’ String Quartet No. 1, “A Revival Service.” This early composition reveals Ives’ penchant for American hymn melodies. For the most part, the work precedes his experimentation with tonality, though a bit of twentieth-century flavor appears in the last movement. The piece made for a cheerfully folksy opener, alternating between sweet, schmaltzy tunes and playfully rustic dialogues between the players.

Following the Ives, the quartet performed Janacek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer.” Janacek was another composer influenced by folk melodies, but of the Slavic variety. This intense piece highlighted the quartet’s breathtakingly precise releases. The contrast between the tense melodies and the sudden absence of sound created charged silences, the kind during which you death-glare at anyone who dares to cough, no matter how elderly or sick.

The quartet capped off the concert with a late Beethoven string quartet featuring a riveting last movement. With all his late string quartets, Beethoven broke from conventional forms, a fact made most immediately obvious by the seven, as opposed to four, movements that the quartet contains. Throughout this work, each member of the Borromeo seemed to finish the other’s thoughts, as a single idea was passed around the quartet or one line was broken up amongst all four voices.
Despite their gimmicky use of modern technology, the Borromeo displayed a timeless understanding both of each other’s playing and of music more than a century old.