Real music lovers owe it to themselves to attend one of the many free sessions between professional musicians and proficient students at concert/master classes at Triangle universities and colleges. Last month I attended one featuring N.C. Symphony artists Jeff Thayer and Bonnie Thron. On the afternoon of April 8, I squeezed into well-filled stage seating in Baldwin Auditorium on Duke's East Campus. A mixture of music students, parents, retirees and music lovers overflowed into the first half dozen rows of seats in the hall. The center of attention was the Borromeo String Quartet, led by Durham's favorite son, violinist Nicholas Kitchen. He and his wife, cellist Yeesun Kim, are founding members of the highly regarded ensemble. More recent quartet members, second violinist William Fedkenheuer and violist Mai Motobuchi, were on hand. Before splitting up for masterclasses with students, a mini-concert was given.
They opened with the first two movements from Mozart's Quartet in E-Flat, K.428, one of the six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Pure intonation was on constant display along with an apparently effortless sense of style (only apparently effortless...). The choice of tempo in the Andante con moto was ideal and I was so lost in reverie that I failed to notice a CVNC colleague nearby. Afterward, we both agreed that the Borromeo only gets better each time we hear them. Next they played the first three movements of Bartok's Quartet No. 4. Instead of hearing my favorite movement from this quartet, the fourth ("Allegro pizzicato"), I paid more attention than usual to the first three. After the highly dissonant introductory measures, the rich cello stated the germinal cell used in the first and the (unplayed) fifth movements. It was extraordinary to hear each musician play with this cell in so many different ways-inverted, treated canonically, rhythmically altered, etc. Glissando and ponticello and even pizzicato glissando were just some of the unworldly delights of the second movement, in which the strings were muted throughout. Kim's rich cello playing opened the third movement, which was full of what Bartok called "night music," evoking distant bird songs and other sounds of the night forest.
Afterward, I learned that she was playing Ciompi Quartet cellist Fred Raimi's instrument in another example of co-operation between cellists in the post-9-11 hassle of transporting large instruments. The extra rich sound was attributed to his recent use of two steel strings. He said that until recently, he had been using gut or "artificial gut" strings. The concert portion ended with truly revelatory performance of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, Op. 133, the unwieldy quartet movement originally meant to conclude the Op. 130 string quartet. It was great to once again hear it laid bare in its quartet form; the last two times that I have heard it, it was expanded and diluted for chamber orchestra. I have heard many different interpretations of this sprawling and craggy work. Some I would call "black and white," with all the contrasts maximized, while others were "studies in gray." I had never considered the possibility of what the Borromeo did-they brought out Dionysian qualities, bounding from its craggy forms and finding joy! It is not everyday that one hears a convincing new way of looking at a piece of the standard repertory. I was struck by the exceptional "speaking" quality of Motobuchi's viola. The viola is, acoustically, the weakest instrument in the string family but hers projects a rich sound unusually well. After the concert, Kitchen told me that the Borromeo String Quartet's new Beethoven CD is scheduled to be released next month.
Each quartet member then took groups of students to coach. I tagged along to Kitchen's session in Bone Hall and stayed to hear him work with an active undergraduate who had prepared Bach's G Minor Fugue. The animated playing of the Mendelssohn Quartet's Miriam Fried was fresh in my mind. At the conclusion, Kitchen praised the playing, overall, and then brought up the metaphor of landing a jet on an aircraft carrier before showing the student how to play with less strain and greater efficiency. Along the way, he touched on several issues involving ergonomics, urging the student to use the thumb and all the fingers to hold the frog of the bow and demonstrating an exercise that his teacher, Giorgio Ciompi, used, in which the hand "walks" the length of the bow. He cited Fritz Kreisler's exchange with another violinist, observing that, when using the upper half of the bow, the violinist plays the note, while at the lower (frog) end, the bow plays it. He took the student through several bowing approaches for dealing with Bach's rolling chords, and at the end the ease of execution and overall improvement in the student's playing was readily apparent. Masterclasses are often like this-and this is why attending masterclasses can be eye-opening experiences, not only for the artists involved but also for observers.