The Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival opened its 11th season of first-rate chamber music, Sunday at the Elley-Long Music Center, with a truncated survey of the string quartet. No surprise, but most of the program was performed by a single ensemble, quite unusual for the festival.
With this year’s theme of “Groundbreakers,” the festival offers public concerts, master classes, discussions and artist reception Aug. 17-27 at the Elley-Long Music Center in Colchester, and other venues in the Burlington area.
Boston’s Borromeo String Quartet, familiar to central Vermont audiences for its performances for Capital City Concerts, offered as its major work Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge, Op 133. Originally published as the final movement of the composer’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat, Op. 130, one of the Late Quartets, it was replaced at the request of the publisher because of its difficulty and large scope. Condemned by contemporary critics, it grew in stature to become one of Beethoven’s most admired creations. Indeed composer Igor Stravinsky described it as “an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever.”
Still, the complexity and density of Grosse Fuge have put off performers and audiences alike, but not so Sunday. The Borromeo String Quartet proved its mettle with a performance that was crystal clear and made real sense of this difficult masterpiece, so much so that the enthusiastic capacity audience clearly got it. It took not only virtuosic technique and a deep musical understanding, but a near-perfect sense of ensemble. The Borromeo has all that.
Violinists Nicholas Kitchen and Kristopher Tong, violist Mai Motobuchi and cellist Yeesun Kim have been playing together since 2006, though the quartet was formed by husband and wife Kitchen and Kim in 1989. In residence at the New England Conservatory, the Borromeo has proved itself a quartet pretty much as good as any.
Unlike European quartets that are largely first violin-dominated, the Borromeo plays in the American style, as equals. The only place that this felt a little unusual was in Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2, written at a time when the first violin had the dominant role. Still, the Borromeo made it work beautifully, delivering the singing lyricism, brilliance and joy of this masterful work. Kitchen was responsible some exquisite playing in the slow movement.
Not surprisingly, the Borromeo illuminated Bartók’s 1927 String Quartet No. 3 to the degree that the audience received knotty work enthusiastically. That came about not only due to the precision and clarity of the performance, but in its clear musical direction. It was a particularly compelling performance.
The program opened with co-artistic directors Soovin Kim and Gloria Chien joining in a virtuosic performance of Schubert’s Rondo in B minor for Violin and Piano. Despite a few uncomfortable moments, their playing reflected the high level this festival has achieved.
Perhaps uniquely, the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival offers the public an immersion into the world of professional chamber music for a little more than a week each year. Sunday’s standing-room-only attendance is indicative of Vermonters’ hunger for this music.