Sounds in Classical Music
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
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
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