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Modern Sounds in Classical Music

By B.A. Nilsson

Brooklyn Rider

Union College Memorial Chapel, March 28

Four string players with impressively diverse performance credentials founded Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that brought a brilliant program to Union College’s Memorial Chapel last Sunday and justified the adventurous bill of fare with playing that was more than equal to the music’s demands.

There’s been a tendency in the classical music world to sacrifice integrity to the supposed audience appeal of brainless pop-music stylings. There’s also a way to do it that enhances the worlds thus straddled, and that’s where Brooklyn Rider lives. They’re a traditional string quartet. That said, they’re exploring sounds of that combination that go well beyond the Haydn-to-Bartók tradition.

Sunday’s program was anchored in Debussy’s appealing string quartet, written in 1893 but eagerly breaking from the sounds of Brahms and Debussy’s own compatriot, Cesar Franck. Although it’s in the traditional four movements, the piece favors melodic invention over development, and has Franck-ian cyclical tendencies. It offers enough unique rhythmic and melodic nuggets to inspire a slew of tributes; thus the opening work, Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel.

The apostrophe is correctly placed, given Debussy’s full name. Here, too, are four movements, whimsically connected in the composer’s program notes, but melodically sounding a fascinating continuity. The first, titled “Lydia’s Reflection” and given to violin (Jacobsen) and cello (his brother Eric), is a haunting piece that sounds at times like a hurdy-gurdy with its drones and slides; it segues into “Second Bounce,” adding viola (Nicholas Cords) and heading into a driving, syncopated territory with double-stops filling out the sound.

Violinist Johnny Gandelsman is added in “Loveland,” and intones a sweet, melancholy melody over a pizzicato-inflected bed. Brooklyn Rider has collaborated with Iranian violinist Kayhan Kalhor, and this influence led to “Shur Landing,” a vigorous finale taking cues from traditional Persian melodies—bringing it full circle to Debussy, who was similarly influenced.

Brooklyn Rider has performed as part of the Silk Road Project, in which context they met Uzbekistan-born composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky (currently in residence at Harvard). He composed . . . al niente for the quartet last year, a work that owes as much to Ives as to Debussy, with brief, slashing outbursts sounding over a slow, discordant bed throughout the 11-minute piece.

The first half finished with Giovanni Sollima’s “Federico II,” the opening movement of a lengthy sound portrait (written in 2000) of Sollima’s native Italy. It’s a joyful work that speaks in a traditional language, with dance-intense rhythms in 6/8 time. It climaxed a well-crafted arc for this part of the concert, creating a logical platform for the opening of the next part.

That was an arrangement of John Cage’s 62-year-old In a Landscape, a piano work arranged for the quartet last year by Justin Messina. Its easygoing modal sensibility was served nicely in this version, using many of the sounds unique to a string ensemble: pizzicato, glissando and even the varying tones produced by different bow placements.

And then the familiar Debussy quartet, which picked up a freshness of sound not only from the sounds that came before but also from an interpretive vibrancy that these players offered without doing aural damage to the work. Taking risks is the key, and there’s no excitement if you’re not prepared to find and walk the tightrope. Brooklyn Rider accomplished this most impressively.

They encored with “Ascending Bird,” Jacobsen’s arrangement of a lively Persian tune, and it brought a happy audience back to its feet. I look forward to a speedy return by this ensemble.

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