Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg*

Borromeo String Quartet

Nicholas Kitchen,
Kristopher Tong,
Mai Motobuchi,
Yeesun Kim,

Sunday, August 30, 2015, 4 pm


String Quartet No. 67 in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2 (1799)
Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Allegro moderato
Menuetto: Presto ma non troppo
Finale: Vivace assai

String Quartet No. 4 (2002)
Gunther Schuller (b. 1925-2015)

Lento moderato
Allegro energico
Lento assai


String Quartet No. 15 in A Minor, Op. 132 (1825), “Heiliger Dankesang”
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Assai sostenuto—Allegro
Allegro ma non tanto
Molto Adagio – Andante—Molto adagio—Andante—Molto adagio
Alla Marcia, assai vivace—Piú allegro—attacca:
Allegro appassionato

next week

Saturday, September 5, 8 pm | Happy Traum, with John Sebastian, Cindy Cashdollar, and Zach Djanikian

Sunday, September 6, 4 pm | Dover Quartet  |  Concert for the Friends of Maverick
Music of Schumann, Janáček, and Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade
Regular Maverick tickets are not valid for this event and there is no
“Rock Bottom” seating. Admission is by contribution only. A donor of $50
receives one ticket; a donor of $100 or more receives two.



The visionary performances of the Borromeo String Quartet (Nicholas Kitchen, violin; Kristopher Tong, violin; Mai Motobuchi, viola; and Yeesun Kim, cello) have established them as one of the most important string quartets of our time. Now celebrating their twenty-fifth anniversary, the Borromeo has performed a vast repertoire worldwide and collaborated with many of today’s great composers and performers. They have been the faculty ensemble-in-residence at the New England Conservatory of Music for twenty-two years and work extensively with the Library of Congress, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Audiences and critics alike have championed the Borromeo’s ability to bring back the contemporary fire to often-heard repertoire, while making even the most challenging new music approachable. “To hear and see them perform has always felt to me like taking a private tour through a composer’s mind,” says Cathy Fuller, Classical New England host on WGBH radio. “They’re champions of new music…but they also thrive on making the old classics sound vital and fresh.”

The quartet has presented string quartet cycles by Lera Auerbach, Bartôk, Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Janáček, Schoenberg, Gunther Schuller, Shostakovich, and Schubert, and will begin their first cycle of the Tchaikovsky string quartets at the Gardner Museum this season. Theyčve enjoyed collaborations with composers John Cage, Gyorgy Ligeti, Gunther Schuller, Osvaldo Golijov, Lera Auerbach, Jennifer Higdon, and many others.

The Borromeo have been trailblazers in the use of laptop computers for reading music. This method allows them to perform from 4-part scores and composerčs manuscripts—a revealing and transformative experience that they now teach to students around the world. In concert they often employ projections of handwritten manuscripts to illustrate the creative process. In 2003, the Borromeo became the first classical ensemble to make their own live concert recordings and videos on tour and distribute them to audiences through the Borromeo Living Archive.

Highlights of their 2014-15 season include concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, the Terra di Siena Chamber Music Festival in Tuscany, and a tour of China. They will give a series of summer concerts to honor the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Borromeočs artist residency at the Gardner Museum, called “one of the defining experiences of civilization in Boston” by the Boston Globe. The Library of Congress, Gardner Museum, and St. Stephenčs Concert Series in North Carolina will all be presenting the Borromeočs cycle of Bartók String Quartets as well as their new “Bartók: Paths not taken” presentation of rediscovered alternate movements that Béla Bartók wrote for his six quartets, but shelved away. They join the Emerson Quartet in Residence at Peabody Institute in Baltimore, and will conduct substantial artist residencies at Colorado State University, the University of Central Arkansas, and the Taos School of Music.

The Borromeo Quartet has received many awards throughout their career, including Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Career Grant and Martin E. Segal Award, and Chamber Music America’s Cleveland Quartet Award. They won the Young Concert Artists International Auditions and top prizes at the International String Quartet Competition in Evian, France.


Over his career, Joseph Haydn standardized the form of the string quartet, making it into the pre-eminent genre of chamber music. He dedicated the two quartets of his Opus 77 to Prince Lobkowitz (who had commissioned Beethovenčs Opus 18 quartets one year earlier). These late quartets are among his greatest.

In the Allegro moderato of the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 77, No. 2, (Allegro moderato • Menuetto: Presto ma non troppo • Andante • Finale: Vivace assai) Haydn presents a pleasant theme which becomes the basis of considerable thematic development. Although he follows sonata form, Haydn rarely included a secondary theme, so the movement is entirely based on the opening melody.

Despite its name, the Menuetto: Presto ma non troppo is much more a scherzo than a minuet. The rhythmic feeling is one beat to a measure rather than three, and it is far from the genteel and courtly dance of earlier days. As is common, the central trio provides a contrasting affect—here a warm, subdued character. The opening material returns to provide symmetry to the movement.

In the slow movement (Andante), Haydn opens with an extended passage of two voices only, with the treble providing the melody and the cello adding the steady walking bass (andante literally means “walking”). The key has shifted to D major for this movement only. As the other instruments enter, the music becomes more complex, but the bare bones of melody and accompaniment remain prominent.

The Finale (Vivace assai) is exciting and virtuosic. The lively theme becomes the basis for fast runs, syncopation, contrapuntal imitation, and rapid-fire dialogue between instruments. An extreme ritardando (slowing down) is followed by a recap of the theme and a satisfying cadence. This was Haydnčs last complete string quartet, and with it he set a high standard for all future quartets.

Gunther Schuller, who died this past June at the age of 89 started as a professional horn player at the age of seventeen. His career has bridged the worlds of jazz and classical music. He played horn in the American Ballet Theater and the Metropolitan Opera, and recorded with Miles Davis in 1949. He coined the term “third stream” to describe music that combined elements of art music and jazz. At the request of Aaron Copland, Schuller served as the Artistic Director of Tanglewood for fifteen years. After teaching at the Manhattan School of Music, Yale, and the Lenox School of Jazz, he became the president of the New England Conservatory and promoted the music of Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington. He wrote many books on the history of jazz, and received a Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award, and the Downbeat Lifetime Achievement Award.

About String Quartet No. 4, (Lento moderato • Allegro energico • Lento assai), the composer wrote: “This quartet represents a departure from my previous three quartets in several ways, most notably in its formal plan of two slow movements encompassing a fast one. Overall the workčs harmonic language is very rich and intense, with lots of eight-part writing. The main body of the first movement features a richly textured, highly chromatic extended episode, in which the three upper instruments (with the first violin in the lead) sing their song over a cello pedal-point lasting — unusual — almost a minute and a half. This episode is recapitulated later in an upside-down version, with the first violin now holding the pedal-point. Another unusual (new for me) feature occurs in the middle of the movement, in which a livelier scatter-shot music alternates abruptly (and audibly) with the slower ‘pedal-point’ music.

“I was tempted to call the second movement ‘sound shards’ (Klangfetzen in German) or, as Debussy might have done, ‘storm clouds.’ This relentlessly driven music eventually subsides into an adagio section, in which two subtly allusive references to Beethoven and Mozart occur. A reprise of the ‘driven’ music closes the second movement.

“Tranquility returns in the third movement with a march-like, slow-moving music (in 3/4 time). Here I worked with — again rather unusual — constant alternation of playing with or without vibrato. A delicate, light-textured middle section suddenly explodes into a brief ‘summer storm’ outburst. Four gigantic twelve-note chords herald the final coda of the work, a stately unison passage — with a surprise ending.”

Beethoven added a note to his late String Quartet in A minor, Op. 132, (Assai sostenuto—Allegro • Allegro ma non tanto • Molto Adagio – Andante—Molto adagio—Andante—Molto adagio • Alla Marcia, assai vivace—Piú allegro—attacca: Allegro appassionato) that has given it the nickname “Heiliger Dankesang” (Sacred song of thanks). The main theme of the opening movement is a series of four long notes (G# - A – F – E) started by the cello, and marked Assai sostenuto (very sustained). The second theme is a minor scale figure of dotted notes. Shortly thereafter, a third theme is introduced, a sweet melody in the major mode. We cannot mistake the intense gallop of the dotted section, or the uplifting mood of the major tonality, or the harsh interruption of those four long sustained notes. These three motifs are interwoven and developed throughout the movement. The contrast between them provides both musical interest and pathos.

With its lighthearted, dancing triple meter, and tripping themes, the scherzo (Allegro ma non tanto) provides relief from the tension of the first movement. The central Trio section maintains the tripping feeling, but offers a rustic sound with single instruments playing runs accompanied by simple accompaniments on the other three instruments.

The third movement provides the central focus of this quartet. Beethoven’s accompanying note says “Holy song of thanksgiving to the divinity from one who has recovered—Written in the Lydian mode.” We know that Beethoven was in fact seriously ill for several months, and bedridden for a month in 1825.

The movement begins with a slow section (Molto adagio) with the sustained chords of a chorale tune. The Lydian mode (one of the old church modes, basically F major with a B natural) adds a touch of both religiousness and antiquity. The next section (in D Major) is lively and melodic, with a ländler (waltz-like) meter, and is marked “Neue Kraft fühlend” (feeling new strength). Staid and lively sections alternate several times. The final Adagio has fugue-like elements, continuing the Baroque reminiscence. Simple and sublime chords close the movement.

The fourth movement starts with a lively march (Alla Marcia, assai vivace)—a contrast to the ethereal ambiance that came before. This is the shortest movement, and ends with a violin solo with a hint of Eastern European romantic flavor.

The finale (Allegro appassionato) intensifies the exotic feeling with a seductive melody and syncopated accompaniment. The music accelerates and crescendos to a near-climax several times, keeping us in suspense until the final decisive moment.


All program notes are copyright Miriam Villchur Berg.
It is permissible to quote short excerpts for reviews. For permission to quote more extensive portions, or to copy, publish, or make other use of these program notes, please contact her at miriam@hvc.rr.com.

Program Notes © 2015 by Miriam Villchur Berg