Brooklyn Rider brings innovative music to campus

String quartet ends residency with concert of Schubert, Glass, Bartók


Assistant Arts Editor

Courtesy of Sarah Small

Courtesy of Sarah Small

“In 1911, several German artists formed the post-World War I Expressionist group Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider). This organization sought to explore abstract elements and forms outside of the normal expectations of the time. The young, energetic New York City-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider, named after Der Blaue Reiter, continues this legacy in musical form.

Like a typical string quartet, Brooklyn Rider consists of two violins, a viola and a cello. This traditional instrumentation was brought to prominence by the German composer Joseph Haydn over 200 years ago, and since then, nearly every composer has written for and revolutionized this dynamic form.

Brooklyn Rider continues to innovate the quartet by playing a broad and unorthodox  repertoire from around the world. The quartet performs not only traditional quartets, such as those by classical composers Haydn, Franz Schubert and Beethoven, but also by modern and living composers like Philip Glass, John Zorn and one of the quartet’s violinists, Colin Jacobsen. They have performed in concert halls and clubs, including Carnegie Hall and Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, and have performed at the South by Southwest music festival and on NPR’s Tiny Desk concert series.

In contrast with many professional quartets, all members of Brooklyn Rider besides the cellist perform standing up. This positioning allows for more dramatic movement, which translates better in communication between players and individual expression.

At Saturday night’s concert in Houghton Chapel, the quartet played a diverse program with music by Schubert, Glass, Jacobsen, Evan Ziporyn, Dana Lyn and Béla Bartók. The ensemble was on campus starting Tuesday, playing in smaller concerts, giving master classes and attending receptions with students. Before the concert on Saturday, the quartet noted that one of its members had recorded in the Chapel before because of its excellent acoustics. Throughout the concert, Brooklyn Rider fully utilized the warm, resonant tone of the Chapel, projecting its bright string tone into all corners of the space.

Schubert’s unfinished string quartet, “Quartettsatz,” written in 1820, opened the concert on a traditional note. From the first stormy passage, Brooklyn Rider showcased its virtuosic lyricism and breathtaking dynamic contrasts, a strong theme in every piece throughout the concert. Glass’s 1983 string quartet, “Company,” followed. Though much more modern, its meditative, flowing rhythms continued the dynamic intensity and tight ensemble of the Schubert piece.

Not only were there significant differences in time periods, but there were also contrasts in cultural influences. Americans are used to hearing Western music, be it pop or classical music, but two of the programmed pieces, Ziporyn’s “Qi” and Jacobsen’s “Three Miniatures for String Quartet,” brought tastes of Chinese and Persian styles, respectively. These contrasted with the rest of the Western-biased program, but Brooklyn Rider performed the Eastern music with matching spirit and focus.

The highlight of the concert was the quartet’s take on Bartók’s “String Quartet No. 2,” finished in 1917 in Hungary. The piece is known for its brooding mood — expressed clearly by Brooklyn Rider’s angsty tone and nuanced accents — as a reflection of the post-World War I cultural and political atmosphere, and like many of Bartók’s works, contains quotes from Eastern European folk music. Especially notable was the electrifyingly rhythmic second movement; the quartet’s energy made it easy to see how the roots of rock and metal still lie in classical music.

As Brooklyn Rider becomes more well-known in the broader music community, it may very well start to shape how small ensembles perform music and set a precedent for more diverse string quartet repertoire in the future.

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