String quartet produces knock-out

07.08.09
Wu Man, Brooklyn Rider
Denver Post

Brooklyn Rider's name suggests an indie-rock or jazz group, and that's the point. 

 The string quartet has made its name by bucking convention - traversing musical boundaries, crossing cultural divides and embracing the new.

It thrives on the unexpected, and that sense of adventure was continuously on exhibit during its knock-out concert Tuesday evening at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder.

Even when playing a work by a classical mainstay, such as Claude Debussy, as it did to open the concert, it breaks from the usual.

Instead of a common chamber work by the French composer, it performed a string-trio version of four sections from "Children's Corner," a solo piano piece dedicated to his daughter.

Quickly demonstrating their classical chops, the three musicians offered an involved, suitably dynamic performance, making the most of violist Nicholas Cords' superb arrangement.

Besides the uncommon passion and energy that Brooklyn Rider brings to its playing, the young, all-male ensemble won over the audience with its informal demeanor, contemporary vibe and easy spontaneity.

It performed at least one work publicly for the first time Tuesday, and it significantly altered the program because one of its violinists, whose girlfriend is about to have a baby, could not make the trip.

Without seeming the least bit bothered by such a last-minute change in plans, it invited two regular collaborators to join the group - bassist Jeffrey Beecher and pipa player Wu Man.

Wu Man has done as much as anyone to transform the pipa, an ancient kind of Chinese lute, into a viable concert instrument. She became the star of the evening, with her extraordinary virtuosity and affable stage presence.

She joined violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Eric Jacobsen in arguably the concert's highlight: "Ning," by Chen Yi, one of the now-famous Chinese composers to emerge after the Cultural Revolution. This riveting, at times intense, work manages to be alternately explosive, bleak and penetratingly poignant.

Much of the rest of the program was devoted to other internationally flavored works, offering a fresh, appealing take on what classical music can be in the 21st century.