Fort Worth — The Borromeo String Quartet, presented by the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on Saturday afternoon, is known for its unusual use of technology. They use laptops or tablets onstage to read from scores or even manuscripts, providing a sense of connectedness with the other members of the quartet. Another innovation is the group’s seating arrangement: while most quartets have the two violinists sitting next to each other, the Borromeo’s seating, from left to right, is first violin, viola, cello, and second violin. This arrangement allows violist Mai Motobuchi to project well, while second violinist Kristopher Tong, facing away from the audience for much of his performance, occasionally turned to face listeners when he especially wished to bring out his part.
On the whole, this arrangement worked well. Since violin invariably projects more than viola, it gives the violist an opportunity to be heard unimpeded, and Tong’s strategy for being heard worked well. Cellist Yeesun Kim provided grounding in between the two inner voices (second violin and viola).
While innovation sometimes comes with issues—Saturday’s concert started about 15 minutes late because of a problem getting the Facebook live streaming to work properly— overall it seems to pay off for the Borromeo, whose tight, unified ensemble and eager exploration of musical ideas made for a delightful afternoon.
The Borromeo Quartet is known for its performances of contemporary music, but Saturday’s concert included much more traditional repertoire. The first half of the program consisted of Hadyn’s Quartet in F Major, Hob. III:82, and Mozart’s Quartet in C Major, K. 465, Dissonance. A signal feature of a first-rate string quartet is the feeling that the audience is hearing one consciousness divided among four bodies, and their four respective instruments. The Borromeo ably provides that illusion. While tone, especially that of first violinist Nicholas Kitchen, was sometimes slightly rough-hewn, even that created drama, particularly in the Mozart.
The second half of the program began with Gershwin’s beautiful “Lullaby” for string quartet. The ensemble brought out the sweetness of Gershwin’s melodizing without being cloying. The real standout of the program, though, was Ravel’s delightful Quartet in F Major. The first movement duet between first violinist Kitchen and violist Motobuchi, playing two octaves apart, was chill-inducing and flawlessly in tune, and set the groundwork for a sublime performance. The critical rhythmic drive and propulsion of the three-against-two passages in the second movement created delightful energy, in particular, and the fourth and final movement concluded with delicious intensity.
There may be better string quartets out there. But the Borromeo is certainly one of the best we’ve heard in the Metroplex in a while.