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The St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Durham managed to pull off a musical coup: They obtained donations from a group of supporters of Concerts at St. Stephens, headed by the Thomas S. Kenan Foundation, Thomas S. Kenan III and Dr. Holly Latty-Mann, that has enabled them to engage the Borromeo String Quartet for a series of eight concerts over the next three seasons, for the full series of Beethoven's 16 string quartets. Each concert will feature two Beethoven quartets plus a third, unfamiliar contemporary work, preferably one hot off the press.
Sunday’s concert, the first in the series, opened with Beethoven's Quartet in C minor, Op.1, No.4. Made up of violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Christopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim, the Borromeo is a seasoned ensemble, and it showed in the precision of their ensemble playing and in the excellent balance, which brought out the inner voices in a way we seldom hear. In spite of the overly live acoustics of the hall, the Quartet projects the intimate sound of ensemble players who engage in a musical conversation with each other in which everyone is given the appropriate opportunity to speak. The Borromeo also brought out the contrasting moods in the work, from the stormy darkness of the first and third movements to the passionate bright second movement and the cheery rondo finale.
In 2004, Israeli composer Liar Novak, created his String Quartet No.2, subtitled "Hope Cycles," for the Borromeo, who premiered it last month at the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival. This 22-minute work is an attempt to mirror the emotions of the nameless individuals trapped in the endless conflict between Israel and the Palestinians or, in the composer's words, "The fear, hate, anger, love, remorse, the claustrophobic and uncertain feeling of being under daily attack (no matter on what side one is)." The Quartet surveys the seesawing drama of open conflict, punctuated by peace talks and road maps, all from the point of view of the bewildered, beleaguered viola, who opens the work and periodically reacts to events it can neither control nor fathom. On first hearing, it was nearly impossible to discern the musical building blocks and scope of the work, since Navok, a student of John Harbison, shares his teacher's penchant for complex harmonies and structures. But what is more striking is Navok's ability to project emotional intensity, engaging our ability to identify existentially with the suffering that brought it forth; the hope, pain, fear, and finally resignation were palpable, as many members of the audience felt compelled to comment to Novak after the performance. One of us, an Israeli with children in harm's way during the latest crises, wondered why Navok didn't title the Quartet, "Vicious Cycles of Hope."
The demanding program ended with Beethoven's Quartet in A minor, Op.132. Again, the precision and balance of the ensemble were commendable, particularly in the long third movement, the "Heiliger Dankgesang," one of Beethoven's most difficult movements to perform. Maintaining harmonic tension over 19 minutes of slow, subtly shifting chordal harmony suggests the composer's lifelong internal suffering that would only resolve symbolically at the final cadence. It was a dark program indeed to inaugurate what promises to be a stunning Beethoven cycle and an introduction to a wealth of contemporary voices.
The Borromeo Quartet records all its performances, and a DVD or CD of most performances can be purchased by visiting them at www.borromeoquartet.org. It would be a great way to listen to Navok's Quartet and learn the intricacies of its design.