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Playing Melancholy Music, And Having Fun With It

11.03.11
Brooklyn Rider
The New York Times

By Allan Kozinn

It seemed a good bet that Brooklyn Rider, the young, genre-bending string quartet, would turn its Zankel Hall concert on Monday evening into a Halloween party, but it was hard to know for sure at first. The group wore mostly black, but then it often does, and it could have been a coincidence that Nicholas Cords, the violist, wore an orange tie. And though Colin Jacobsen, who alternates on first violin with Johnny Gandelsman, peppered his between-works comments with vampire and zombie references, and Mr. Cords mentioned that the group would be playing music by composers dead and undead, the frivolity could have easily ended there. 

But after the performance of Beethoven’s intensely emotional Quartet in C sharp minor (Op. 131), which closed the program, the real antics began. During the applause, the players turned toward the right balcony, where someone dressed as Beethoven stood to take a bow. And when the musicians returned to the stage for an encore, they were fully in colorful, ghoulish costumes, with a gorilla commandeering the cello until the quartet’s Eric Jacobsen, hopping onto the stage gagged and bound, took over the instrument. The encore itself was a comic jam, packed with pop-culture horror references.

Otherwise the program was serious, even sober. Along with the Beethoven the program included John Zorn’s “Kol Nidre,” an introspective, melancholy work meant to evoke the prayer that begins Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. And Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3, which closed the first half, is built on themes from his score for “Mishima,” the Paul Schrader film about Yukio Mishima, the renowned Japanese author who committed seppuku (ritual suicide) in 1970.

Both the Zorn, with its slow-moving melody set against a sustained, deep cello tone and a shofarlike wail from one of the violins, and the Glass, with its dense, contrapuntal arpeggiation, were given concentrated, warm-hued readings. This mostly new-music group doesn’t play a lot of Beethoven, but it should do more. Granted, parts of the work were marred by fleeting pitch problems and a tendency to slide into notes. But the slow movements were soulful and fresh, and the powerhouse account of the full-throttle Presto was a delight.

The quartet began with a collaborative work of its own, “Seven Steps” (2011), an inventively eclectic score that touches briefly on jazz and makes its way through a few modal turns and energetic folk-fiddling passages before settling into a slowly morphing, lightly dissonant shimmer. Between the performances of its own work and the Glass, the ensemble made a powerful case for Christopher Tignor’s vital, texturally fluid essay for quartet, drums and electronics, “Together Into This Unknowable Night” (2008). Mr. Tignor oversaw the percussion and electronic elements and also, made up as a zombie, did a vocal turn during the encore.