Brooklyn Rider quartet took to the Harvard Ed Portal stage in Allston Monday—the last stop on a national release tour celebrating and drawing from its new album, “Spontaneous Symbols.” The rep included resident violinist Colin Jacobsen’s own BTT, Bostonian Evan Ziporyn’s Qi, and Sequence for Minor White by New York native Kyle Sanna. The quartet of Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman, violins; Nicolas Cords, viola, and Michael Nicolas, cello brought in quite a crowd. Faculty from various music schools in Boston, Ziporyn, composer Osvaldo Golijov, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma attended, on top of three of the four musicians of the internationally-renowned Silk Road Ensemble, packed the room with quite the collection of classical music celebrities.
In one unusual act, the popular ensemble displayed a wealth of musical prowess, starting immediately with violinist Jacobsen’s BTT. Jacobsen set about composing something both melodic and textural simultaneously, incorporating the composer names into material that broke down the pitch class sets inherent to the names and transported them around the ensemble (John Cage ((C-A-G-E)) and J.S. Bach ((B-A-C-B-flat as H)) ). Could any ensemble other than Brooklyn rider have managed to convey the exceptionally difficult polystylistic work so flawlessly? Tuttis, trios, duets, and solos disappeared as fast as they coalesced and left each instrumentalist floating in its own space. Jacobsen ran the gamut of effects the quartet could pull off. Scratch tone surfaced amidst the chaos, as did guitar position playing for violins and quasi-jazz bass playing in the cello, as several sections of note. In some ways, despite returning to textures later on in the work and showing forethought in the form, Jacobsen might have done too much, resulting in a quartet that, though stunning in its breadth of ideas, bordered between being virtuosic and schizophrenic. It never crossed the line into schizophrenia, but it came disturbingly close, a result of loads upon loads of ideas being implemented leading to overload, yet this long movement stood up to the modern classics as an example of the raw power of a string quartet.
Toning back the unending effects, Evan Ziporyn entered East Asian philosophies with his Qi. Each movement represented a form of spiritual renewal. The first, a meditation on lucid dreaming and the tendency for people to imagine themselves flying in “Lucid Flight,” emphasized a constant driving rhythm. Representing flying, melodic cells changed and drifted through the ensemble held down by a centricity in E major. Occasionally, the melodies became canons, driving the Jacobsen and Gandelsman to comment back and forth to one another and escaping pure minimalistic repetition. Of note was Jacobsen’s stage presence, leading the ensemble through some of the broader, fuzzier pulse driven sections. “Garden,” written after Ziporyn noticed the refractions of light in his garden, became more spacious and fragmentary in nature at first. The fragments of ideas convened at certain points to form shimmering harmonies more than likely fueled by the overtone series, sounding full and perfectly tuned. The pulse eventually returned, adding structure to the rate at which fragments aligned, sometimes resulting in secundal and quartal harmony. The pulse fell in and out by the time the end rolled around, wrapping up the movement much as it began, with short fragments of ideas now colored by a tritone. The rate at which events happened surely taxed the performers, who seemed unfazed by the lack of clear direction in the movement. “Transport” struggled at first to find the pulse intentionally, setting up its return as an arrival point. Strangely enough, once it got going, the pulse sounded almost like a heartbeat; strange how none of the other movements had that happen, but that must be the power of orchestration. This time around, all members of the ensemble had a chance to solo or duet on melodic material. Cords and Nicolas paired up to trade short solo lines as did violins Gandelsman and Jacobsen; these solos best highlighted their ability to match each other’s timbre. It was exciting to watch a group of master ensemble players at work here, laying into the postminimal triplet base while duplet solos washed over the accompaniment.
Sequence for Minor White by Kyle Sanna rounded out the evening. Sanna structured it sectionally or scenically, in homage to photographer Minor White, who founded Aperture Magazine. Air tone marked the beginning, each ensemble member focusing on stasis before creating a short burst of activity to pockmark the texture. The players certainly had to time everything out specifically; the audience could see the concentration on each person’s face as well as their unspoken communication, eyes locked together. Sanna gradually shifted the ensemble into a two against three hemiola, pitting F minor against C major while Nicolas soloed over the landscape. Nicolas gave his cello a lyric quality, singing through the dissonance with impeccable clarity. Sanna refused to shy away from more dissonant material, giving everyone chances to showcase their instruments, especially violinist Jacobsen, who got a cadenza-like solo near the end. Interestingly, Sanna reducing Brooklyn Rider to a string trio by having Jacobsen forgo his violin to feed an amplified music box with a specially prepared sequence. It broke through the homogenous texture to end the quartet quietly and quite distinctively.
Brooklyn Rider took the Harvard Ed Portal by storm. Not only that, but they were charitable too; before the concert began, Jacobsen announced that 100% of the gross sales of CD copies were going to support hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico. That was the mint on the pillow after a night of impeccable musicianship.
NEC graduate student composer Ian Wiese, a new-music aficionado, loves attending and supporting concerts of living composers’ music and the ensembles that champion them.