Nicholas Kitchen, Kristopher Tong, Yeesun Kim and Melissa Reardon of The Borromeo String Quartet. Contributed photo

Now in its 30th year, the Portland Chamber Music Festival has a deserved reputation for filling a couple of weeks in August with a rich variety of live classical music. But the festival planners have also managed to schedule a few other noteworthy concerts throughout the year.

The latest event to draw a crowd to the University of Southern Maine’s Hannaford Hall in Portland was convened on Saturday afternoon and featured the Borromeo String Quartet, a venerable foursome which, by the way, has as its newest member PCMF Artistic Director Melissa Reardon taking the viola chair (or, piano bench, as she apparently prefers).

Reardon, along with Nicholas Kitchen (1st violin), Kristopher Tong (2nd violin) and Yeesun Kim (cello) took the stage for an ambitious program featuring three strong works from the core of the chamber music canon.

Beginning with Joseph Haydn’s “String Quartet in F Major, Op. 74, No. 2 (1793)”, the Boston-based quartet quickly established a high degree of technical acumen and collective identity in working through a spirited and at times playful work that helped set the standard for composers in the centuries to come.

Produced for supportive aristocrats, Haydn’s masterful quartet nonetheless reaches across classes with its mixture of formal mastery and emotive grace. His humor was not lost in its overall complexity Saturday, as evinced by cellist Kim cracking up at the finish of the Menuet movement, to the delight of her musical partners and the large crowd in attendance.

Next up was a “darker” work, as violinist Kitchen remarked in his brief opening comments. Indeed, Béla Bartók’s “String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor (1915-1917)” reflects a more somber post-WWI period in European history.


The piece unusually sandwiches a fast-paced middle movement between two pensive outer movements. Though a bit of a sharp turn from the Haydn work that preceded it, it was possible to discern how Bartók had elaborated on the potential musical avenues established by the old master while incorporating elements reflecting his own research into eastern European folk music.

The Quartet effectively captured the work’s mixture of urgency, restlessness and mournful resolution into a powerful, serious performance that confirmed that the times were unsettlingly changing as the 20th century established its ways.

After a brief intermission, the Quartet settled into a performance of the ever-popular “String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 10 (1893)” by Claude Debussy. One could sense the composer’s subtle influences on Bartók in a general loosening of what could be expected from a chamber piece. The work’s delicate, dreamy quality was beautifully realized, with Reardon taking full advantage of the chances offered in the work for the viola to step forward.

While the selections taken in the chronology of their composition went from the positivity of Haydn to the delicious sensations of Debussy to the troubling cautions of Bartók, the overall message of the concert and the PCMF, in general, is a belief in the transcendence available within well-selected and well-played chamber music.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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