Music to the Rafters in Windsor Terrace

08.02.13
Brooklyn Rider , The Knights
The New York Times

By Joanne Kaufman

The Jacobsen brothers, Colin and Eric, are half the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. They’re also half the quartet occupying a three-story brick house in Brooklyn. They bought it almost two years ago for reasons they eagerly enumerate: the bones and the vibe were good, the ceilings were tall, the subway was right at the end of the block. Oh, and it scored high on the Vondelstraat and gezellig scales (more about this in a second).

“At different times Eric and I studied for a year in Amsterdam with husband-and-wife musicians,” said Colin, 35, a violinist/composer whose younger and charmingly goofy brother is a cellist/conductor. “They owned this big old house where they brought up their kids. Many generations lived there, and it was very communal. Just being in the feeling of warmth — gezellig.”

Their teachers’ home made them think, “If they can do it, we can do it,” Colin said. Then, when they saw the house in Windsor Terrace, he added, “we definitely said, ‘This is very Vondelstraat,’ which is the street where our teachers lived.”

The Jacobsens, who are also part of the Silk Road Ensemble and the artistic directors of the orchestra collective the Knights, have done a variation on the communal theme on the street where they live.

Colin and Maile Okamura, his wife of two and a half years, are on the top floor (like the other units, theirs has 1,100 square feet), and a cousin is just down the stairs. Eric, 31, has the first-floor apartment, an open space that’s often pressed into service as a rehearsal hall, concert space and recording studio (the Knights recently backed up Francis Ford Coppola on a song he wrote to herald the birth of a grandchild; he paid them in wine). A warm-up for a recording date featuring Brooklyn Rider and the banjo player Béla Fleck drew 25 people; as many as 50 can be accommodated.

They make music, then they make dinner. The best seats in the house are around the reclaimed-wood dining table in the middle of Eric’s apartment. “I used to have a table that you could extend and it would seat 10,” Eric said. “But that felt like it had to be an occasion, and there are so many times that 10 people are here. So we thought, let’s just have a table that can seat 10 people and we’ll squeeze in more.”

Their grandmother, he recalled, used to tell them that “when the door opened and my father walked up the steps for dinner, she didn’t know how many of his friends would be with him.” And so it is at their house, he said. “Sometimes it’s 4 o’clock and there are three people coming for dinner and then it’s 5 and there are 10 people coming for dinner.”

The spillover crowd perches on the stools that line one side of the granite-topped island in Eric’s kitchen. “I really wanted an island,” he said. “Somebody can be here cutting an onion and I can be stirring something and we can still talk about the music we just played and about life.”

They also settle on the brown leather sofa and the wing chair, both from the library in the Jacobsens’ boyhood home on Long Island. When the weather cooperates, they head to the yard, where Eric grows tomatoes, basil and shishito peppers, and where the patio chairs also date back to the brothers’ childhood.

“When we move, which isn’t that often, and our friends come over,” Colin said, “they say, ‘Oh, this feels like the last place you lived.’ It’s very grounding.”

Eric’s apartment, with its stark black-and-white kitchen, white oak floor and mostly uncluttered surfaces, is a counterpoint to Colin’s light and colorful space, where the cabinets are filled with wooden figurines and small framed photographs, where the top of the dining table is reclaimed wood from a bowling alley and where the kitchen floor is paved in blue-and-white tile. The brass spigot in Colin’s cast-iron bathtub is shaped like a swan, a classic example, Eric said, of gezellig.

There was a brief period — it may have lasted, oh, as long as a minute — when the Jacobsens thought that they would mess with the pattern of a lifetime and live under separate roofs. Cherchez la femme.

“At a certain point I fell in love,” Colin said. “I was going to get married and we were trying to figure out the next step: were we going to break up the brothers?”

Maile, he said, “realized she was marrying both of us — sort of. She calls Eric her ‘brusband.’ Separate ways would have been simpler, but the big idea was that if we pooled our resources we could get a house.”

Eric moved in right after closing, and workers began knocking down the walls between rooms and pulling down plasterboard that — happily — exposed brick. His brother and sister-in-law arrived a year later.

Their father, Edmund, now retired, was a violinist in the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera; their late mother, Ivy, was a flutist. “I chose the violin because of my father,” Colin said. “Eric was always big for his age, so they handed him a cello.”

Some of Colin’s first memories are of his parents’ friends coming over and playing music through the night. “And at some point Eric and I were able to join them,” he said. They both eventually attended Juilliard.

“Together but not together” was the doctrine during the house search. “Because our lives are so intensely intertwined,” Eric said, “we wanted to have our own entrances and we wanted to have some distance between us. But we wanted to be able to come up or downstairs to rehearse or to talk about the program for this or that upcoming concert.”

There’s an air shaft between the bathrooms in their apartments. A dangled rope is a highway for notes. On Eric’s 31st birthday in June, the payload, courtesy of Maile, was a shirt from Italy and a tin of truffle salt.

There aren’t a lot of house rules: knock first. “A phone call first would be even better,” said Eric, who for the record doesn’t appreciate Colin stealing his socks or the last bits of his food. There was, it seems, an incident involving granola.

Otherwise, harmony has prevailed. “You always hear, ‘Don’t get into business or real estate with your family members,’ but we’ve done both,” Colin said. “Thus far, cross your fingers, it’s been great.”