Another String Group Unleashes Its Inner Rock Band

03.16.10
Brooklyn Rider
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

Watching Brooklyn Rider play music from its new CD, “Dominant Curve,” at the colorfully lighted Angel Orensanz Foundation on Monday evening — just a few days after seeing the Kronos Quartet at Zankel Hall — it was hard not to think about how string quartets have revamped their image in the last quarter century.

Once the very symbol of classical music’s staidness (however unfair that seemed to anyone who knows the vitality and adventurousness of the repertory), quartets are now unleashing their inner rock bands. Groups like Kronos and Ethel dress casually, play only new music and use amplification and up-to-date sound processing. But even more traditional ensembles have adopted high-energy performing styles.

Brooklyn Rider has a trendy veneer, based partly on its interest in music that draws on other cultures and its openness to combining acoustic and electronic sound. But trendiness notwithstanding, this group is anchored firmly in the straightforward quartet world.

Its program, largely replicating “Dominant Curve” (In a Circle Records), included new works by Colin Jacobsen, one of the ensemble’s violinists; Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky; and Kojiro Umezaki. But John Cage was represented by an uncharacteristic oldie, the sweetly tonal “In a Landscape” (1948), augmented here with a subtle electronic overlay by Justin Messina. And the evening’s centerpiece was a brisk, intensely focused account of Debussy’s G minor Quartet (Op. 10), a 117-year-old work we still think of as vaguely modern.

The players combined their concert with an art exhibition — works by Lennie Peterson (whose drawings illustrate the “Dominant Curve” booklet), Golnar Adili, William Merkens, Kevork Mourad and Andrew Nofsinger — and attracted a large, young crowd.

Mr. Jacobsen’s “Achille’s Heel” (2009) — the title refers to Debussy’s middle name, Achille — offers an unusual look at the dynamics of quartet playing. Stretches of this fantasy in four connected movements are scored for one, two or three instruments, and those combinations say as much about the nature of musical interplay as the full quartet passages. Mr. Jacobsen’s style is eclectic: sweetly shaped melodies float over harmonically dense accompaniments, and toward the end, he edges toward the shimmering harmonies that animate the Debussy quartet.

Mr. Yanov-Yanovsky borrows from the Debussy quartet as well. In “... al niente” (2009), he weaves thematic fragments from the score into an eerie, otherworldly texture, but you barely notice them as the work morphs from a nearly static meditation into a rhythmically explosive central section and a lugubrious finale.

Mr. Umezaki’s graceful playing on the shakuhachi (a Japanese flute) defined the spirit of his “(Cycles) what falls must rise” (2009), but he gave the quartet plenty to do, not least an appealing pizzicato section, some stratospheric violin writing and a lovely, if brief, duet for viola and cello. And in the spirit of the evening, Debussy was touched on, at least obliquely, in the harmonic haziness in the work’s final pages.

Brooklyn Rider’s playing in these new works was energetic, finely detailed, solidly unified. But it was not until its propulsive, rhythmically and texturally fluid performance of the Debussy that you could see how technically polished and interpretively insightful this quartet is.