IN: Reviews

Adventuring With Virtuosic Riders


In-person and livestreaming from WGBH’s Calderwood Studio on Thursday night, Brooklyn Rider (violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas), gave powerful and sympathetic accounts to start a three-concert residency for the Celebrity Series.

Dabke on Martense Street, commissioned by the ensemble, is one of a series of works in which Syrian-American composer and clarinetist Kinan Azmeh attempt to “document personal experience in a given location” or conjure the “look and the sound” of a place. A geographic thread runs through many of his compositions, including 139thst, Café Damas, and The Fence, The Rooftop And The Distant Sea. Martense Street references Azmeh’s current home in Brooklyn Rider’s namesake borough while the Dabke is a Syrian folk dance, reflecting the two halves of Azmeh’s identity. He composed the piece during the pandemic and described his vision of “a fictional party of strangers and neighbors who are willing to hold hands again and dance.” Martense Street is also an important thoroughfare in a neighborhood officially dubbed “Little Caribbean,” a nod to the vibrant diversity of New York City and perhaps a veiled connection to the Latin American works on the rest of the program.

Far from being a simple dance arrangement, Dabke on Martense Street begins with complicated hocketing and counterpoint accompanied by a range of polyphonic pizzicato, conveying a sense of continual motion. A lengthy meditative interlude gives way to bowed hocketing while Jacobsen played an energetic melody, replete with double stops, shining overtop.

Matana Roberts composed borderlands… (2018) for the quartet’s “Healing Modes,” a project connecting music with the need for healing. Trained as a jazz musician, Roberts might be familiar to audiences in Massachusetts after her studies at NEC and two Copeland fellowships at Amherst College. borderlands… makes for a haunting and virtuosic take on the crisis at the Mexican-American border. In addition, as Cords told us, he tasked the quartet, a symbol of diplomacy, with crossing and erasing their own boundaries in the act of sharing inner feelings with audiences.

borderlands… utilizes a graphic score, placing the Riders’s  improvisations within “rules of engagement,” to use Cords’s term. Spoken quotations from the Declaration of Independence and many extended techniques abound in this unsettled work. Roberts’s apparently strict “rules” saved borderlands… from the descent into chaos that marks many other indeterminate scores. Instead, the performers shifted mood and sound quality together and were even occasionally homorhythmic, underscoring the intensity and intentionality of Roberts’s composition.

The premiere of Venezuelan composer Gonzalo Grau’s Aroma e Distancia followed. Grau’s useful essay outlined his use of contrasting dance styles, namely Venezuelan tonada and Spanish bulería, a specific style of flamenco. Occupying a place just beyond the boundaries of tonality, Grau’s lilting melodies were accompanied by spiccato and percussive effects. The occasional sparse texture gave cellist Nicolas moments to shine in this passionate work.

Osvaldo Golijov’s introduced the premiere of his five-movement Un Día Bom from the stage, describing Un Día Bom as a “ballet for children” that outlined an entire life as if told from the viewpoint of a child. The first movement, Hovering in the Cradle, set the stage with trading of poignant, jumpy melodic lines between quartet members. …while the rain… echoed a quote in Winter from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Sprightly ostinato rhythms and continual plucking representing rain hammering on the roof accompanied a charming waltz melody abounding in Golijov’s signature harmonies. The third movement, Around the Fire, merged “Arum dem Fayer,” a traditional Yiddish lament, with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet and perhaps a hint of the Four Seasons as well, resulting in what Golijov termed “three funny and mischievous dance variations” surrounded by a “slow processional and restrained tears.” Riding with Death, a take on the eponymous Basquiat painting, was a thrilling and violent short movement with piercing interjections interrupting the continual motion. Un Día Bom ended with contemplative Feather, the gem of the work and a poignant homage to Chick Corea. An attractive ostinato provided the foundation for subtle harmonic experimentation and gorgeous melodic lines.

Brazilian bossa nova superstar João Gilberto’s Undiú, arranged by Brooklyn Rider violinist Jacobsen, provided the closer. Jacobsen’s arrangement, far from a straightforward transcription, begins unexpectedly with a ferocious opening chord and dreamy introduction before the recognizable pizzicato bassline for Gilberto’s baião dance arrives. The players highlighted the wistful nature of Undiú, but nevertheless demonstrated their command of impressive extended techniques and complicated counterpoint. The Riders finished by singing the repeated line “Undiú” while playing, yet another example of their adventurousness.

The foursome and Golijov returned to the stage for a talkback with WCRB’s Chriss Voss. The ensemble explained their appreciation for the return of live concerts, the significance of collaboration, and the experience of working with living composers. Nicolas and Cords outlined the “empathetic” process of preparing for a premiere alongside the composer, as well as the value of “creating” contemporary music instead of “re-creating” warhorses from the classical canon.

While there were many through-lines connecting each of the works on the program, including multicultural influences and continual use of extended techniques, perhaps the most pertinent was that each was written especially for the group. The ensemble’s performances encapsulated their “empathetic” take on these new compositions, providing a virtuosic and thoughtful reading of all.

This concert will remain available HERE until 7 pm on Wednesday, October 13th. The second concert of Brooklyn Rider’s residency, including tenor Nicholas Phan and featuring the premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s Trois valses anglaises and works by Nico Muhly and Schubert, takes place on November 12th. The quartet returns to the Celebrity Series on March 18th with mandolinist Avi Avital.

Gareth Cordery, a first-year Ph.D. student in Historical Musicology at Columbia University, majored in Music and History at Middlebury College. He has performed piano concertos with symphonies across the United States, and lives in New York City.

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