Brooklyn Rider shows the fresh colors of the Western tradition

02.25.10
Brooklyn Rider
Indy Star

By Jay Harvey

The acknowledged masterpiece on Brooklyn Rider's program at the Indiana History Center Wednesday night sounded like a new work.

That's a measure of the young string quartet's success in rubbing the patina off the Western classical tradition and showing the fresh colors beneath received impressions of such works as Debussy's Quartet in G minor.

Many well-established quartets offer perfectly lovely interpretations of this music that peg it as an outgrowth of 19th-century romanticism. Brooklyn Rider plays it as if it had no forebears, indicating in program notes that it was written four years after the French composer had been favorably impressed by music and art from Java at an 1889 Paris exhibition.

So the exoticism of the score is brought out, helped by the placement of violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen at either end of the foursome. Though not unprecedented (one of the traditional ways of seating string sections in an orchestra replicates Brooklyn Rider's arrangement), this set-up enhances the spectrum the four instruments present.

There were also subtle decisions about phrasing and dynamic changes that gave Debussy's music a new emotional profile: The third movement, the center of the work's lyricism, had fewer swells and throbs. The major contrasts of loud and soft weren't ignored, but greater evenness from phrase to phrase was quite appealing. The melodic material in the first movement, some of it fragmentary, was never fluffed up like so many pillows, but rendered plainly.

First violinist Gandelsman's bow hold -- high on the stick -- occasioned much comment at intermission and an audience question just before the encore, Café Tacuba's "Muerte Chiquita." Joined to the restraint of his vibrato, his approach appeared to import an early-music style to modern works that didn't sound out of place -- indeed, seemed an essential part of the Brooklyn Rider signature. But a grip on the round part of the bow instead of the more finger-friendly area may have had something to do with his lost grasp on the last note of the Debussy.

The four New Yorkers (the others are cellist Eric Jacobsen, Colin's brother, and violist Nicholas Cords) take their ensemble name from the "Blue Rider" group that thrived briefly across the visual and musical arts before the First World War. Just as the seminal figures in that movement sought development away from the linear "progress" of art music in Europe, Brooklyn Rider cultivates links with visual artists on its Web site and programs such eccentric works as "In a Landscape" by 20th-century America's most notorious iconoclast, John Cage.

This arrangement of a piece originally for piano and harp focused on a continuous, ever-shifting texture that eschewed any kind of evolution or conventional tension and release. The palpable sense of commitment Brooklyn Rider brought to the deliberately unsensational score helped point it toward enchantment -- even if, to these ears, it didn't quite make it.

The concert opened with Colin Jacobsen's "Achille's Heel" -- a serious pun, in that Debussy's full name is Claude-Achille Debussy and Brooklyn Rider takes pains to acknowledge his great influence. The composer played first violin for the four-movement work, which used a wide range of string techniques designed to give the maximum color to its fetching rhythms and internal contrasts and its suggestions of blues and country fiddling.

It had more going on than the subsequent work, Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 5. Finding its own kind of variety within its built-in repetitions, Glass' music always seems to be skirting the obvious: Was that boogie-woogie in the last movement? Earlier, was there a hint that the quartet was about to break into "Maria" from "West Side Story"?

At this late date, however, maybe skirting the obvious is about as original as most new music can get. Nonetheless, Brooklyn Rider is vibrantly on the scene to be its undoctrinaire advocate.