From deli to concert hall; Crossing, and expanding, boundaries with Brooklyn Rider

02.24.10
Brooklyn Rider
The Boston Phoenix

By Christopher Gray

If you're a young (or youngish) music fan looking to become a little bit more engaged with classical music, there is truly no better time than right now, particularly if you'll find yourself in Portland this weekend.

First, some broader cultural context. The sort of jagged, suspenseful classical music that particularly grabs the attention of younger listeners is having a moment. As with most musical trends, you can point the beginning of it to Radiohead. In late 2007, the band's guitarist, Jonny Greenwood, provided what may have been the most innovative and effective film score of the last decade to Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood. Since then, Arcade Fire violinist Owen Pallett has received overwhelming acclaim in pop circles for his new album Heartland (Domino), which was recorded with the Warsaw Symphony Orchestra. Heck, I just got an e-mail about innovative Haitian-American composer Daniel-Bernard Roumain playing in Rockland on March 7 — he performed with Lady Gaga on American Idol last year.

Enter Brooklyn Rider. This New York string quartet (of two violins, a viola, and a cello, and an average age in the low-30s) will begin a weekend in Maine with a short early-evening concert performed at a decidedly unlikely venue: the deli at Hannaford on Forest Avenue. (They follow that free, 6 pm event with more formal, ticketed gigs at USM's Hannaford Hall in Portland on Saturday night, and at UMaine's Collins Center for the Arts in Orono on Sunday afternoon.)

Like their better-known brethren in Kronos Quartet (who made a name for themselves among young audiences via the score for Darren Aronofsky's 2000 film, Requiem for a Dream), Brooklyn Rider are renowned for their exhilarating performances of new and canonical string works, but also devote ample time to exploring ways to integrate music from other cultures and genres into the Western classical tradition. The last album they put out before their brand-new effort, Dominant Curve (In a Circle), was Silent City (World Village), a collaboration with the Iranian legend Kayhan Kalhor, who plays the kamancheh (an upright, four-stringed fiddle). All four members of Brooklyn Rider are also part of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, which shows the musical connections between the cultures that intersected along the trade route to China.

That intention dovetails nicely with the group's own technique. Dominant Curve is centered around Claude Debussy's lone work for string quartet, from 1893, but it also contains ambient passages and Eastern and Middle Eastern influences. "One of the reasons Debussy was inspirational for this recording," violist Nicholas Cords said in an e-mail discussion, "was because of his relationship to tradition. His pioneering visions involved looking both into the future and looking into the past. He was a very inclusive listener — he put all kinds of music on an equal plane, whether it was acknowledging the complexities of the Indonesian gamelan or taking joy in the florid lines of [Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Pierluigi da] Palestrina . . . [His music] speaks to the sort of directness in communication that we love to seek with our audiences."

There are a few ways in which Brooklyn Rider achieve such intimacy. Their recordings, Dominant Curve in particular, deliver on the moments of eerie violence (particularly in the Debussy piece), but they're also adept at more unusual and conceptual pieces, such as "(Cycles) what falls must rise," a collaboration with the electro-acoustic Japanese performer Kojiro Umezaki. They also often play standing up (for increased expressiveness), and pride themselves on giving their pieces proper cultural and historical context in program notes.

Their rather trendy habit of playing unusual venues (they're playing at South by Southwest next month), then, isn't so much an expression of diffidence ("I believe in the concert hall experience," Cords notes) as another example of the group's excitement about the increasing merges and cross-pollinations among diverse cultural traditions. "We have a burning desire for our music to be relevant to our generation," says violinist Colin Jacobsen. "I think there are a number of people in my generation who aren't tied down to one way of defining themselves. We love playing Debussy [and others] . . . , but love doing it in the context of our time."