Brooklyn Rider at Barbes

12.12.08
Brooklyn Rider
Lucid Culture

"Playing to a standing-room crowd in the back room of a Brooklyn bar, innovative string quartet Brooklyn Rider delivered a riveting, intense performance of some impressively eclectic material ranging from traditional Iranian and Armenian folksongs to classical and contemporary compositions. As visceral and intense as most of the set was, and as ever-present as the temptation to simply cut loose and go for the jugular must have been, the quartet managed to stay within themselves, maintaining a remarkable restraint and an uncannily subtle sense of dynamics. This made the crescendos - and there were a whole lot of them - all the more exhilarating.

They began with Ascending Bird, a traditional Persian tune from their innovative and sensationally good new cd Silent City, a collaboration with noted kamancheh (spike fiddle) player Kayhan Kalhor. The melody illustrates a sort of Icarus myth and was as rousingly fiery and stormy as the recorded version, violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen dexterously blending textures, whether plucking or playing wild sheets of melody. They followed with a set of their own arrangements of Armenian folksongs from their debut cd Passport. Most of these were very dark, including a couple of sad waltzes, one of them highlighted by some eerily emphatic doublestops from violist Nicholas Cords.

They then tackled Bartok's Second String Quartet. Those sitting closest to the band had no choice but to confront the demons: this is an unabashedly violent, angry and strange work, a brave and marvelously affecting selection. Seizing on the typically Bartokian atonalities and a series of jarring ninth intervals, they built to a big, insistent devil's choir of tritones, cellist Eric Jacobsen bringing a percussive, fiery attack to the low frequencies. As the second movement began, they brought out every bit of knowing suspicion in the opening theme, climbing to a mocking crescendo as the disonnances grew, all the way to a sarcastic, faux-Beethoven four-note coda: the end, goodbye. By contrast, the third movement was exhausted, mournful, defeated, a study in clinical depression. Bartok from a distance may seem offputting and weird; Bartok in this group's hands became impossible to look away from. The audience didn't know how to respond.

Composer Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin, leader of another sensationally good string band, Ljova and the Kontraband was in the audience and at this point interjected some welcome, characteristic humor: the seat next to him was empty, so, echoing Rod Blagojevich, he announced that he was auctioning it off to the highest bidder. The band rewarded him for his participation with a stirringly slinky version of a Finnish tango that he'd arranged, remarkable in its evocation of Piazzolla. The group further demonstrated their versatility on a Norwegian folksong that alternated between big-sky ambience and a rousing dance, the lush, hypnotic Ljova partita Plume (also from Passport) and closed with an intriguing cover of the Cafe Tacuba hit La Muerte Chiquita, Jacobsen's subtle, deftly placed slides and accents enhancing its eerie ambience. For anyone wishing for another rare chance to see this group literally up close and personal, they're playing Nublu on Ave. C on Dec 17 at 9."