Brooklyn Rider thrives on the unexpected

09.18.11
Brooklyn Rider
Allentown Morning Call

By Steve Siegel

If the name Brooklyn Rider sounds more like a rock group than a string quartet, you're on to something. This quirky group of classically trained musicians is as comfortable spending quality time with Mozart and Schubert as they are kicking things up with Mexican rock, bluegrass or gypsy folk music. These guys thrive on the unexpected.

"We look at the string quartet as a kind of classical music band for the 21st century," says violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who, with three close musical friends from Juilliard and Curtis, formed Brooklyn Rider about six years ago. Joining Gandelsman are violinist Colin Jacobsen, his brother Eric on cello, and violist Nicholas Cords.

The group has performed in venues as diverse as the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina and the Malmö Festival in Sweden, and has recorded four CDs ranging from Philip Glass quartets to music inspired by the Iranian master spike fiddle player Kayhan Kalhor.

On Tuesday, Brooklyn Rider performs at the Williams Center at Lafayette College with another genre-crossing program. Joining the quartet will be the great shakuhachi — Japanese bamboo flute — player Kojiro Umezaki in his composition "(Cycles) — What Falls Must Rise" for shakuhachi, string quartet and electronics.

Also on the bill is the ensemble's freshly premiered composition for string quartet, "Seven Steps," Philip Glass' String Quartet No. 3, "Mishima" and a string quartet arrangement of Joao Gilberto's "Undiú" by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen. Filling out the playlist in a good old-fashioned way will be Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131.

The group's name is an appropriate one, considering that city's vibrant multicultural background. But in addition to calling Brooklyn home, these musicians also share an even stronger bond: each is a member of cellist Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, a collective of internationally renowned performers and composers from more than 20 countries.

Involvement with the Silk Road Project has helped this quartet understand musical styles beyond the Western mainstream, and has put it in contact with potential collaborators who play non-Western instruments.

"Working in the Silk Road Ensemble has opened our ears, more than any other experience, to different musical possibilities and different styles," says Gandelsman.

"It has affected us in so many ways," says Gandelsman. "One is the opportunity of working with wonderful musicians who are masters of their own traditions from different parts of the world. But even more importantly, it has made us feel we can participate in those traditions in an honest way, even if we're not experts ourselves. To participate in something you don't fully know makes you somewhat vulnerable, and that allows for a certain openness."

Samples of that participation include the group's self-produced 2008 debut album, "Passport," with a diverse mix that includes a set of Armenian folk songs arranged for string quartet, and even an arrangement of "La Muerte Chiquita," a song made famous by a Mexican rock group.

Brooklyn Rider's acclaimed 2008 recording "Silent City" features the renowned Iranian kamancheh (spike fiddle) player Kayhan Kalhor. And "Dominant Curve," released last year, spotlights fellow Silk Road Ensemble member Umezaki's composition "(Cycles)," which will be heard on Tuesday.

"(Cycles)," commissioned in 2009 for Brooklyn Rider by the music department of Dartmouth College, is a perfect example of the melding of the traditional with the cutting-edge. "The concept behind the piece was to reconcile the foreign with the familiar," says Umezaki, assistant professor of music at the University of California, Irvine. "The general idea was to reflect on what kind of things I learned through the Silk Road Project."

Umezaki, who holds a degree in electro-acoustic Music from Dartmouth, also is a Lafayette grad, with a BS in computer science. "But I spent most of my time with the music department," he admits.

Born and raised in Tokyo by a Japanese father and Danish mother, Umezaki started playing the shakuhachi as a teenager when most of his friends were playing the electric guitar. "What teenager would want to pick up such an antiquated instrument? But I guess it made more sense for me, being half-Japanese, as a way to connect more with the Japanese side of my identity," he says.

For "(Cycles)," Umezaki started with something familiar — a traditional piece from the shakuhachi repertoire which translates as "Falling Leaves." "The idea was to transcend from that to something more foreign, and then return. Since we're talking about ascending and descending, we can use electronics to extend the highs above the violins, and the lows below the cellos," he says.

"In addition, every time we play the piece, I record the ending, and use that recording in reverse as the beginning section for the next time we perform it."

The marriage of this ancient instrument, long-beloved by Buddhist monks for practicing meditation and breathing, with modern Western instruments and subtle electronic effects, casts a mesmerizing spell. "Part of the ascetics of the shakuhachi is its asymmetry. The goal of Western instruments is to produce an even volume with consistency from pitch to pitch. That's not the case with my instrument — you just have to deal with what the bamboo gives you as you go up and down a scale," Umezaki says.

Mesmerizing also is a word used to describe the music of Philip Glass. "His 'Mishima' quartet is a great piece to have recorded, but it's even better to play for an audience," Gandelsman says. "It's wonderfully spiritual, and its range of human emotion is stunning — it's absolutely one of our favorites to play."

The collaborative composition "Seven Steps" is something new, even for Brooklyn Rider. "The idea of collaborating on a composition, doing something together the way a band would, has been with us for a couple of years. This is our first attempt at creating a whole piece together," Gandelsman says. Conceived as a companion piece to Beethoven's Op. 131, it is not directly inspired by it, although Gandelsman says there are perhaps subliminal connections, not the least being the piece's title, an obvious reference to the seven movements of Op 131, which are played without a break.

"While we were delving deep into Beethoven's world with the Opus 131, at the same time we wanted to create our own piece, sort of to meet Beethoven on some similar level of creative output," Gandelsman says. "Just as Beethoven discarded a ton of sketches in working on that piece, all of us are bringing our musical thoughts, like sketches, together and then working them out on ours."

Interestingly, with large scale orchestras and ensembles struggling for survival in these hard economic times, string quartets, like Brooklyn Rider, are continuing to evolve.

"There are so many great composers out there now, and so many directions to go, it's a good time to be a musician, especially a chamber musician. It's not competitive ground, its fertile ground, and we're excited to be participating in that," Gandelsman says.