We are fortunate to enjoy a full calendar of music each season here in Chicago. The variety is endless—performances of all sizes, personalities, and genres, take place in a plethora of venues. Every now and again all the elements align and something magical transpires. That happened this past Saturday evening at the seventy-sixth concert hosted by the Chicago Chamber Music Society featuring the Borromeo String Quartet.
Chamber music, as the name implies, was originally performed in intimate spaces, generally for private performances. In our present time it isn’t unusual to hear performances of chamber works hosted in halls that have a capacity of over 1,000. Lost in those instances are the audience’s opportunities to connect closely (literally) with the performers. In large spaces this music can become a simply a shared experience rather than a conversation. By contrast, the Chicago Chamber Music Society hosts their events in a small hall (beautifully outfitted in art deco angularities of black, white, and gray) in a private club that seats only around 150-200 guests. Combined with a wonderful program of music ranging from Bach to a new work, all interpreted with superb flair by the Nicholas Kitchen (violin), Kristopher Tong (violin), Mai Mutobuchi (viola), and Yeesum Kim (cello), the outcome was a captivating evening.
Opening the program was EOS, a work by Ben Hjertman, a Doctoral candidate at Northwestern University, who won the Chicago Chamber Music Society’s composition competition in celebration of its 75th anniversary year. The rules of the competition stipulated the composer incorporate one of the oldest pieces of music in existence, the Skolion of Seikilos. Hjertman did a wonderful job of blending the ancient tune with his modern musical dialect through a series of seven movements chronicling the shades of night brightening into full daylight. A strong feeling of stasis pervaded many of the movements, bringing to mind a kind of Rothko strength of simplicity that pulses below the surface with hidden movement and variation. Every now and again the tension would explode with a passion that seemed at times to be more monotonous than truly agitated or propelling. Calling on the performers to whistle a sustained note at the conclusion struck me as a bit gimmicky, but overall it was a strong piece, and the performance certainly lacked nothing. Additional laud should be given to the Chicago Chamber Music Society itself for encouraging and supporting our local composers by providing opportunities for their music to be heard and played by world-class ensembles; a basic yet too infrequent gift.
Following the Hjertmann was Nicholas Kitchen’s arrangement of J.S. Bach’s Fugue in C-sharp minor from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I, which functioned rather like a lemon sorbet palate cleanser: a straightforward, orderly piece beautifully performed, resetting our ears between the complicated works bookending the night (and subtlety prepping us for the monumental work to follow, written in the same key). What was so special about their interpretation was the care that was taken with blending. So often musicians over-compensate in fugues, obviously trying to make absolutely certain that the audience hears every single pronouncement of the main subject, or theme. Rarely do they have confidence in the counterpoint itself. Thankfully, Borromeo did, so we were treated to an opportunity to not only revel in the subject, but the countersubjects and secondary themes as well.
It is obvious that the Borromeo String Quartet embraces each note and pours over its context with exquisite detailed attention. From the first sound of the evening to the last, their energy only seemed to build rather than exhaust or lax. The final work of the evening was one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most astounding later string quartets—String Quartet no. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131. It’s expansive, sophisticated, moody, extreme, and witty almost to the point of being outright funny. In other words, it’s Beethoven at his heart-on-sleeve finest. When the composer moved to Vienna as a young 22-year-old man to study with Haydn, he found himself in a city full of aristocrats amongst whom it was fashionable to display a more than casual penchant for music. Many of these cultured homes retained their own orchestras for private performances, and the string quartet was the crown jewel of the chamber music crown. Beethoven spent a great deal of time mastering the Classical era string quartet, which made him exceptionally adroit at taking it all apart and putting it back together in entirely unexpected ways (like a thief who knows a good heist depends upon a thorough knowledge of the territory).
I don’t know that I’ve ever witnessed a more enjoyable performance of a Beethoven string quartet. This is an ensemble that pulled off a spectacularly rare feat of not just performing a work well but embodying it, breathing through it, and illuminating it’s soul. The depth of sentiment expressed in the opening few measures alone would have been worth the price of admission. Additionally, their timing was impeccable. Time is something musicians obsess over—how we experience time, how it speeds up or slows down, how emotions are expressed through time, how long does a sigh linger—because tempo and accelerando or rubato are the blood rushing through the body of a piece. The Borromeo String Quartet provided the transfusion. Their ability to truly communicate the personality of the music, and by extension the personality of the composer, was evident in the faces of the audience who even audibly giggled during the overtly playful sections. In other words, people were having a good time! They crossed the line from bystander audience to participatory audience. That is the single biggest compliment any ensemble can receive.