Sunday, January 21, 2007

Kirchner and Borromeo

Before conducting his Concerto for Violin, Cello, Ten Winds and Percussion, Leon Kirchner swivelled around grudgingly on his stool and addressed the audience. "I've been told to say a few words about the next piece," he said, as though talking about himself was some great burden. Kirchner (shown right, photo courtesy the website of publisher G. Schirmer, Inc.) is 87, and sometimes appears his age, behaving as though every extraneous word or gesture were depleting a fast-diminishing supply.

Then again, once he began to speak, he couldn't have been more charming, insightful, and engaging - if a little mysterious. Because he didn't really talk about the piece to be performed, but just recited a few short poems, by Blake, Yeats, and this one by Goethe:
He who has Art and Science, has also religion;
He who has neither Art nor Science, needs religion.
All his comments were a bit enigmatic, alluding to his philosophical ideas about mathematics, music, and life, without getting into any long philosophical discussions. He did a very good job of introducing himself to the audience - if not the piece he was about to lead. Maybe that's the best way to introduce a complex, unfamiliar 20th-century piece, though. I think most of the audience sat up a little higher in our seats, as I did, intrigued by this slightly curmudgeonly but very eloquent old man, and we listened with great interest to a piece of 'difficult' chamber music which turned out to be fascinating, elegant, and wise - just like its creator.

Also on the program was a Schumann piano trio, and the Brahms Sextet with the Borromeo Quartet (shown in a photo from their website). I used to hear the Borromeo regularly when I went to NEC, and they were the quartet in residence there (as they still are, I believe). The group has changed a bit - a new violist, Mai Motobuchi, and a violinist who I played with in the Verbier Orchestra several years ago, Kristopher Tong. Together with founding members Yeesun Kim, cellist, and Nicholas Kitchen, first violinist, they've kept the same brilliant and thoughtful style of chamber music making though, and hearing them brought back pleasant memories of First Monday concerts in Jordan Hall.

It's funny how a group can replace half its members, and yet still maintain its unique qualities and traditions - the New World Symphony is probably the rare orchestra that turns over a third or more of its members each year, but every ensemble deals with personnel changes to some extent. The Borromeo played Brahms with two New World members, violist Chris Fischer and cellist Soo Jee Yang, and it really did seem like one fantastically augmented string quartet - the same impression I often get when hearing the Cleveland Orchestra's string section play. I suppose it's a sign that music is not only one of the noblest of arts, as Leon Kirchner said, but also a especially communicable one!