A Conversation with Nicholas Kitchen of the Borromeo Quartet
On a cool fall day, I spoke with Borromeo Quartet first violinist Nicholas Kitchen, who was at the New England Conservatory. All four members of the quartet—besides Kitchen, violinist Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi, and cellist Yeesun Kim—teach there. We spoke of the founding of the group, changes in its membership, and the new technologies that they are integrating into their performances.
Q: How did the Borromeo Quartet come into being?
A: We formed the quartet as a summer project to play concerts in Italy. Ruggero Allifranchini, the original second violinist, was Italian. His father was a music teacher near Milan. Ruggero asked him to arrange some concerts for us during the summer vacation. The first date we played was near the Borromeo Islands of Lago Maggiore. We visited the islands, and when we later decided to stay together as a quartet we adopted the name. Ruggero and I were both students of Szymon Goldberg at the Curtis Institute of Music. He encouraged us to do some of the usual summer activities, but added that he did not think we had to go to the usual places like Tanglewood or Aspen. He suggested we could arrange a few concerts and rehearse very hard for them. He thought that students who formed ensembles for such a project could have very positive experiences and we took him at his word. Our trip turned out beautifully. We played 10 concerts in the most charming Italian hill towns. It really was an amazing experience. We found that concerts that were to start at 9 p.m. actually began at 9:30. Dinner was afterwards! We have many wonderful memories of our first quartet concerts. We had a fantastic time that summer and we returned the following summer. Everything went well for us as a quartet, too, so that was the start of the Borromeo Quartet.
Right now, we teach at the New England Conservatory of Music, where we are the faculty quartet in residence. Usually, we have three hours of rehearsal together each day and each of us practices extra hours as well. After all that, we may play a concert! We keep very busy, but we love what we do and we are happy to put in the hours to make it work. There is a wonderful fullness in the way our lives are scheduled. We could probably arrange our lives so that we just played concerts, but we love being at the conservatory. It nourishes us and it’s amazing how it all ties together. One of the composers whose music we play on our new CD, Gunther Schuller, was the president of the conservatory for many years. You could not find a composer more deeply rooted in the conservatory’s environment and more devoted to making it the great institution it is today. Although he is no longer the president, he started much of what goes on here today. It is filled with his spirit. We also have a significant presence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. We’ve done many cycles there, including all the Shostakovich quartets. We’ve done two Beethoven cycles and all the Schoenberg quartets there. We’ve also done Brahms chamber music there and we are about to do the complete Dvořák works for string quartet.
We also have a deep involvement with the Taos School of Music. We usually teach four weeks of the eight-week session there and have done that for quite a few years. Although we teach in Boston, we fly out and play concerts in various cities every three or four days. Actually, we were just in Scottsdale, Arizona, but not for a concert. We have adopted a new way of playing. Instead of using sheet music, we play from laptops. That fact interested the people at Cisco Systems and they asked us to attend an executive summit. They wanted us to give a concert and make a presentation on the technical side of our work. We really have invented a new way of reading music. For one thing, each player is looking at the entire score, not just at the part he or she is playing.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of using laptops instead of sheet music?
A: The tradition has been to use paper parts on which each player only sees his or her own part. Everyone could use the full score for a resource to consult and study, but no one could really play from it. Playing from complete scores has always been merely a dream. It has been done using large pages, but they are clumsy to carry around. I had seen some pianists turn pages with a pedal and I thought that would solve the problem we would have if we used laptops instead of sheet music. I got a pedal that we could use with our MacBook Pros and put full scores in PDF form on the computers. Since then, I’ve come up with a homemade pedal that fits our needs more exactly. Another important factor is that the MacBook is a very quiet machine. Right now I’m about to make a batch of pedals for colleagues and students. It took a bit of time, but being able to look at the score while playing has given us some enormous advantages. Entire pieces come together much more quickly when each player can see the parts of each of the other players, and the richness that communal understanding adds has proved transformative to our working process. We all see every layer of the music at once.
Q: Do you sometimes project the score so that the audience can also read it?
A: Yes, we do. I know that only a percentage of the people can read it, but I always ask how many listeners do not have any idea of how to read music. I get a few hands. Then I give a very short introduction to reading notes. Basically I point to my line and tell them, “This is what I play. When the notes go up I play higher tones and when they go down I play lower tones.” It seems to help people out so that after the concert they are often proud that they could follow along. They say they could see where we were and how the instruments interacted. Sometimes we project the original manuscript. That communicates something really special to the public. They are usually quite excited, as are we.
Q: What is on your latest recording?
A: The newest is
As It Was, Is and Will Be.
It contains the String Quartet No. 4 by Béla Bartók, a live version and a studio version of Gunther Schuller’s Quartet No. 4, and Mohammed Fairouz’s
Lamentation and Satire.
Q: Why did you record two versions of the Schuller?
A: We were doing a live performance of the Schuller in Jordan Hall, the main venue of the New England Conservatory. We have a long history of recording our concerts. We worked very hard with Schuller and when we finished playing he was happy enough with our rendition that he suggested we use the live recording on our upcoming CD. We agreed that something special had been caught in the live concert, but we also had a plan to record it in the studio, in fact in the very same hall, and we wanted to do that, too. We used to make all the live concerts available to the public on recordings, but we had to stop doing that because we became overloaded with them. The practice was putting too much material in circulation and producing it all was impossible. However, we do still record every concert because we love the idea of having a record of everything we do. So, we decided to show both versions on the disc. The studio version is, of course, done in takes. The best ones are selected and spliced together. I have become very involved in the editing process. I did the editing for this entire CD. I worked with Schuller on editing his quartet. It was a great experience to work with him in that way. We found that a great many people wanted recordings of our concerts because they want to take home the concert they have enjoyed. I’ve used high-quality audio and video equipment to record everything we do. Then, we can let the audience have some of it, too. We have recorded all our concerts since October of 2003. That’s nearly a thousand concerts, by now, and we have a huge archive.
For three to four years there were order forms at our concerts and many people ordered CDs from us. It just became unwieldy for me because I was doing everything that pertained to engineering. It’s also my own conviction that I want people to enjoy recorded music discs as a part of their lives and especially to connect these experiences with the live experience of making and listening to music. Recordings also offer a link to the unreachable musical past. Many people do not have a musical background and compact discs offer them a way to learn about music at home or in the car. Some of us are so familiar with the recent musical past that we don’t know where the knowledge came from, but for many people the compact disc or download offers a rare opportunity to get invited into the musical process.
I’ve done a great many projects at the Library of Congress. For example, I played all the Bach solo violin works there. You can watch that entire concert on the library’s website or on YouTube. I played five of the library’s violins during a concert there. We have worked hard at creating pleasurable musical experiences. Each of the concerts offers a deeper contact with the music and a chance to learn about how it is played. That knowledge needs to be a part of people’s education but it is no longer taught in public schools. As artists, we need to make it available to the public.
Q: When can I go to the movie theater and see you live in HD?
A: Symphonies and opera companies have bigger followings and they bring more people to theaters. We have not done it yet, but the Borromeo live in HD would be a fantastic idea. We could reach a much larger audience that way. Maybe we could give the audience a chance at a discussion. People would see the musicians and the music from different angles as it is being played. It would also offer us a chance to play for children for the first time. At a cinema you can eat, drink, and even use the restroom if necessary. You don’t have to worry about a restless child doing something that would send the concert into a tailspin.
Q: What can you tell me about the Schuller quartet?
A: As with a lot of great music, there is an introductory section. It leads to a very long melodic climb by the first violin over an immensely long sustained note by the cello. Schuller says that it could be one of the longest pedal tones in music. The cello just stays on that tone while the rest of us rise from one step to the next. Eventually you get this really rich apotheosis. Then, it becomes fragmented and the bits of music shuttle through the instruments in a quick expression. After that, there is one more rise, this time led by the cello, so it is sort of upside-down.
One of the most interesting aspects of the work is the frantic crazy energy of the second movement. Schuller calls it “flying shards.” Not that it’s threatening; it isn’t. It’s celebratory with a frenetic energy. Of course it’s also very technical and very difficult. It’s also very, very exciting. In that movement there is an area in the middle where he sets himself up to quote a very wonderful Mozart symphony. It’s one that was written when Mozart was very young. Schuller also quotes Beethoven’s
from his opus 132, which he wrote at the end of his life. Schuller evokes a sense of contrast by the way these two quotes interact with each other. That, I find, is one of the most wonderful aspects of this piece. The third movement has a real grandeur in the way it sets up its rhythm and its powerful use of chords. In a certain way, it is ominous. The huge chords we play near the conclusion are quite amazing. Then the music disintegrates and in live performances we leave the stage allowing the cellist to play alone at the end. Schuller writes in 20th-century language and uses dissonant intervals, but he has a secure method of connecting with expressive content. Actually, he has a tremendous emotional richness in the way he communicates. Then he contrasts this romanticism with wild energetic textures. We play a lot of truly great older quartets like those of Beethoven, for example, but we start off with a piece like the Schuller. It’s a thrill to discover that it, too, is a really great work. It’s great in both imagination and emotional content. It’s a piece that was written just a few years ago by Schuller, who is now in his 80s. He is still creating music and we can hope to play more of his works in the future.
Q: What can you tell me about Mohammed Fairouz?
A: He is very young. He is of Arab descent but he grew up in London. His musical training is from there. He is already quite brilliant at a young age. I think one of his main activities has been writing songs and working with singers. He has also written a number of symphonic works that are frequently performed. The piece we play has a very interesting way of bridging the gap between what is challenging and what is reassuring in an interesting and even enticing way. In
Lamentation and Satire
some of the
uses dissonance in a bold and almost furious manner. It is most expressive music, and at times it is really frenetic because it’s constructed that way. But, then, he uses the quartet in a chorale mode. There are comforting intervals and harmonic sections that express a peaceful state. I love that aspect of his music. Then, of course, it turns and transforms itself into the
. There, again, we get a huge range of expression. He uses satire and extreme characters, much as Mahler does.
Lamentation and Satire
is not a long work, but it is most certainly one that we are excited to be able to put on our disc. Bartók, Schuller, and Fairouz are truly three successive generations of richly stimulating composers.
Q: What can you tell me about your recording of the Mendelssohn Octet together with the Arial Quartet?
A: The Arial Quartet was in the professional studies program here at the New England Conservatory, but they have since graduated. I got the manuscript of the Octet from the Library of Congress. It is on the computer, so I thought we might use that manuscript for a performance. Then I realized that the 1825 version was quite different from the published score. Mendelssohn had revised it with about a hundred bars of new music when he published it seven years after he first wrote it. We found that in the published version he had shortened the recapitulation of the first movement, omitting a beautiful theme that we had never played before. The first half of the development is basically different music in the original version. In the second movement he develops a repeated motif for 19 bars that does not appear in the published version. The third movement remains the same, but the fourth has some surprising dynamic changes. It makes sense that seven years later he was more experienced, so he streamlined the work.
Q: What can you tell us about the instruments that members of the quartet play?
A: I play on a wonderful violin that used to belong to my teacher at Curtis, Szymon Goldberg. It’s a Guarneri del Gesù that Goldberg’s widow, the pianist and educator Miyoko Golderg, gave to the Library of Congress with the proviso that I be able to use it as long as I play. I use it hoping to celebrate the spirit of his artistry and the generosity with which he taught that artistry. Before that, I played the A. J. Fletcher Stradivarius for many years. When the Goldberg opportunity came along I asked the Fletcher Foundation if the instrument could be used within the Borromeo Quartet. Now our second violinist, Kristopher Tong, plays it. It’s wonderful to have both instruments playing here together. Mai Motobuchi has a viola from Moes & Moes. Yeesun Kim, the cellist, has a really old cello by Peregrino Zanetto that is labeled 1576. It was probably recut into the form of a modern cello during the 1700s.
Q: What is some of the music that has been written for you?
A: A number of works have been written for us. One interesting piece was composed in December of 2010; Curt Cacioppo has written a piece called
. It is based on Navajo mythology. She is part of the Navajo way of understanding the world. It has a programmatic sense to it, but most importantly it’s a vibrant piece of chamber music. We premiered it in Tucson and played it again at Taos last summer. Next year we will premiere a new work of Mohammed’s, and we hope to commission a work by Mr. Schuller very soon.
String Quartet No. 4.
String Quartet No. 4
(live and studio versions).
Lamentation and Satire
GM/LIVING ARCHIVE RECORDINGS 2080 (74:49)
The Borromeo Quartet calls this new compact disc
As It Was, Is and Will Be.
That is because the music on it is from three successive generations of composers. Béla Bartók (1881–1945) wrote his Fourth String Quartet in 1927. He was then out of favor with the government but he had not yet left Hungary. The arch structure of this quartet means that the first and fifth movements are related, and so are the second and fourth. It leaves the slow third movement to stand alone and provide some contrast. Here the first and last movements are constructed like permeable walls with multicolored blocks of sound. Sparks seem to fly as the Borromeo Quartet plays them with perfect precision and radiant tonal quality. The second and fourth movements are more percussive, and the Borromeo plays them with precision and intensity. The third, the emotional center of the quartet, gives us a bit of respite and a chance to enjoy the luminous beauty of a slower pace. Other recordings of this work include a version on Deutsche Grammophon by the Emerson Quartet and on Decca by the Takács Quartet. The Emerson emphasizes the angular spikes in the music and for that reason loses some of its innate beauty. The Takács players seem to lack insight and intensity. Their sound is good, and it’s close in on the instruments, but not as clear as the state-of-the-art sound on the new Borromeo recording.
Gunther Schuller was born in 1925, 44 years after Bartók, and is still with us, composing and creating new sounds. He is the second generation whose music is featured on this disc. If Bartók blazed a trail for the 20th century, Schuller took up where he left off and produced music that captivated both the emotions and the intellect. It is most interesting to compare the live and studio renditions of the quartet; it can help listeners decide which kind of recording they prefer. There are many more live recordings being made these days and when they are made by the most able performers, such as the Borromeo Quartet, they are wonderfully exciting without any loss of precision. Studio performances, on the other hand, are more studied and in this case more controlled. Personally, I prefer the spontaneity of the live version, but it is wonderful to have both available for comparison.
Mohammed Fairouz was born in 1985. That makes him the third-generation composer on this disc. He was a pupil of Schuller, and is a marvelously talented composer. Fairouz is of Arab descent, but he was born and educated in London. Most of what he has written so far is vocal music, but
Lamentation and Satire
shows that he certainly can write for string quartet. Hopefully we will be hearing a great many new pieces from this fine new talent. Kudos to the Borromeo Quartet for being the first to record it. It’s a wonderful piece with imaginative harmonies that play directly to the emotions with plaintive tones in the
is a complete reversal, with technically polished, percussive playing. It’s an excellent finale for this fine disc, the selections for which were recorded in the New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall in late 2009. Needless to say, with this group of musicians sound quality is of the utmost importance. On this CD it exemplifies the state of the art.