CHICAGO CLASSICAL REVIEW
Brooklyn Rider pushes the genre boundaries in wide-roving program
By Gerald Fisher
Brooklyn Rider performed Friday evening at Mandel Hall in the University of Chicago Presents series.
A freshly refurbished and acoustically enhanced Mandel Hall hosted the string quartet Brooklyn Rider Friday night in a stunning display of mostly new music performed in the group’s uncompromisingly athletic but audience-friendly manner.
The members of the New York-based quartet (Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violinists, Nicholas Cords, violist and Eric Jacobsen, cellist) are all Silk Road performers and active in the new music circles in New York and, as their name indicates, Brooklyn, particularly.
The evening’s program, in the University of Chicago Presents series, ranged from an early quartet by a 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn to a recently composed (2011) quartet by avant-gardist John Zorn. The four young men perform (all but the cellist play standing) with a unified accord in repertoire that challenges both performer and listener, pushing the boundaries of classical music into areas of world, jazz and pop with almost seamless continuity and style.
As if to throw down the gauntlet to the audience, Brooklyn Rider opened with a strictly classical work played straightforwardly and sensitively. Their performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.12, no. 1, lacked the tonal refinement and relaxed elegance required by this music and was plagued by intonation problems throughout. Still, the artists had the measure of the work all the same, especially in the more energetic sections.
They moved quickly into their area of expertise with three short pieces composed for them by non-classical musicians. Each was given the task of exploring a particular creative artist’s influence on their music, part of a project called “Brooklyn Rider Almanac.” The trio of composers included in this evening’s performance was: singer-songwriter Christina Courtin, who chose Stravinsky; Dana Lyn, a Brooklyn-based fiddler and composer who chose Mierle Laderman Ukeles, (long-time feminist and since 1977 artist-in-residence with the New York Sanitation Department); and Vijay Iyer, the well-known jazz pianist and bandleader who chose the always-kinetic James Brown.
Courtin’s piece, tralala, ingratiatingly references the neo-classical Stravinsky at the start, morphs into darker dance-like music followed by folkish-sounding harmonies and ends in a question. Lyn’s piece, Maintenance Music, is more modernist, featuring very dissonant and taxing but vigorous motifs. Vijay Iyer stole the show, making the musicians at one point put down their instruments and turn themselves into finger-snapping percussion instruments.
John Zorn’s piece, The Alchemist, dominated the program and was the clear highlight of the evening. This is a demanding and uncompromising work, seriously conceived and spectacularly played by the four musicians. Zorn is 60 years old now and his work has the patina of an old master. He uses the palette of the avant-garde fiercely and dramatically with softer, more tonal, inner weavings and demanding solo parts. This extended piece is hard to dissect and is really a long sequence of tonal extravagances.
The program ended with the violinist Colin Jacobsen’s lovely take on Persian classical music which he titles Three Miniatures for String Quartet. The instrumentalists shine individually and together in this world music-themed work with its flowery and exotic soundscape.
The news about the Mandel Hall rehab is mostly good. The seats are larger and more comfortable and the sound appears to be brighter with the addition of baffles above the stage and front of the audience. The seats were renumbered and on Friday there were plenty of seating issues with subscribers which the hall’s staff handled smoothly.