Borromeo String Quartet violinist Kristofer Tong and cellist Yeesun Kim played for the Mt. Desert Chamber Festival last Tuesday at the Neighborhood House in Northeast Harbor. NAN LINCOLN PHOTO.

Chamber Fest is “top drawer”

Review by Nan Lincoln


MOUNT DESERT — Of all Mount Desert Island’s venerable summer musical festival traditions perhaps the most genteel is the Mt. Desert Festival of Chamber Music.

It began 55 years ago when summer resident Clara Fargo Thomas invited a select gathering of her friends to meet in the drawing room of her magnificent home overlooking Somes Sound to hear a popular young New York violinist, Matthew Raimondi, play for them.

It was just 16 years after the great fire had consumed a third of the island’s forests along with many of its grand old summer cottages. In fact, Thomas’ guests would have driven past the charred trunks of evergreen, maple and birch trees and scorched boulders to reach her home.

The little concert was a big success, convincing those present that perhaps MDI, which had once rivaled Newport, Rhode Island as a summer cultural haven, could rise from the ashes of disaster and once again bring world class musicians to the scarred but healing island.

Ten days after Thomas’ soiree, the concert was repeated at the Northeast Harbor Neighborhood House. Thus a new concert series was launched and an old MDI tradition revived.

Every Tuesday evening, for five weeks, in July and August, the Chamber Festival carries on that 55-year tradition.

If the audience at these Neighborhood House concerts is now more of a mix of summer residents and year round folk, the music is still strictly top drawer. It’s the sort of entertainment one might expect to find in the gilded music halls of Boston, New York, Philadelphia or Vienna.

A case in point was last Tuesday’s program by the internationally admired Borromeo String Quartet. They were scheduled to play a program of Franck and Faure, but due to injuries to a couple of viola players that made the group sound more like a football team than a string quartet, they substituted an adaptation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” for the Franck.

I had recently listened to Glenn Gould’s tour de force rendition of the Variations, and I must say this was a fascinating exercise, transforming Bach’s “stream of conscious” ruminations on his friend Johann Goldberg’s musical themes into a conversation.

I’m sure the true musicologists in the audience appreciated how cleverly the quartet managed to divvy up the complex notes and themes of Bach’s musical interplay between four players, creating an animated and pleasing interchange, but what is lost here is the edge of your seat thrill of hearing a single pianist, with only two hands playing that torrent, no, that virtual tsunami of notes and chords all by him or herself.

At these Chamber Festival concerts, the intermission is an integral part of the event. Yes, it was a blessed relief to step out of the hall for a moment on that steamy night to be refreshed by the slight ocean breezes, but the opportunity for the regulars to see and be seen by one another is the non-alcoholic equivalent of a 15-minute cocktail party. In short order the Neighborhood House was filled with social chatter as animated as the music that came before.

The second half of the program was Faure’s Piano Quintet in C Minor, featuring the excellent Todd Crow on piano. If the preceding Bach had been a cerebral triumph, this Faure was all emotion and flowing harmonies — also highlighting the difference between an adaptation and a piece that was actually written for a chamber orchestra.

In Crow’s program notes we learned that Faure wrote this quintet at the end of his career and life at age 75, when he was almost entirely deaf.

This perhaps accounts for the prevalent nostalgia of the piece, with the elderly composer working and reworking familiar themes that he could still hear in his head.

While there is a distinct melancholy quality to the first of the four movements, the second movement is surprisingly sprightly and fun, bringing to mind those old movies with damsels in distress and handsome heroes riding to the rescue. The final two movements are a return to the melancholy, contemplative mood, but so lovely and evocative it made one realize that, like the Summer Chorale concert the week before, these musicians — Nicholas Kitchen and Kristofer Tong, violin; Mai Motobucchi, Viola: Yeesun Kim, cello and pianist Crow— are not simply note players, but storytellers.

The final chamber concert of the season will be the return of the Brentano String Quartet in a program featuring Haydn, Shostakovich and Mozart, scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 21 at 7:30 p.m. Contact 266-2550 or visit

Nan Lincoln

Nan Lincoln

The former arts editor at the Bar Harbor Times writes reviews and feature stories for The Ellsworth American and Mount Desert Islander.

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