While major American orchestras struggle to maintain budgets and build audiences, the string quartet seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. Chicago has seen this reemergence up close: the Pacifica Quartet has revived the standard repertoire with youthful vivacity; the Spektral Quartet has reimagined the traditional concert format to contextualize modern music. Though the quartet Brooklyn Rider is based on the east coast, its members have appeared in Chicago in various other iterations - as members of The Knights and Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, to name two. As part of this quartet renaissance, Brooklyn Rider not only embraces music from far-away cultures, but incorporates its peers from other musical genres, and composes its own repertoire.
Brooklyn Rider cruised into town for a show at the University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall (no relation to this reviewer) on Friday, preceded by its reputation as a groundbreaking, cutting edge, superquartet. The first piece on the program was Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E-flat Major - hardly weird modern music. Looking back to the 18th Century, when the quartet form enjoyed its height of popularity, Brooklyn Rider acknowledged its connection to history, playing with informed sensitivity and pulsating energy. With a collective tone neither too thick nor too thin, the group’s playing was well-suited to the 20-year-old composer’s musical personality. This was Mendelssohn as he should sound, each bubbly voice dancing and full of vivacity and elegance.
The program jumped ahead some 200 years and didn’t look back. Performing selections from the Brooklyn Rider Almanac - a collection of works commissioned by the quartet and based on modern cultural influences - Brooklyn Rider incorporates non-classical composers and expands the concept quartet repertoire. Singer/songwriter Christina Courtin’s “tralala” is a sunny, whistful homage to Stravinsky, while Dana Lyn’s “Maintenance Music” featured a plaintive cello and viola melody over fragile harmonies and rhythms. Vijay Iyer’s “Dig the Say” was a different animal altogether, with its jagged grooves, stomping feet, and hand clapping executed with astounding precision.
Hardly content to perform music of its contemporaries, Brooklyn Rider goes an extra step to collectively compose its own repertoire. In “Seven Steps,” the ensemble explores the creative process: talking at once, arguing, and bursting with new ideas and directions. The music represents the collaborative nature of chamber music.
Similarly chaotic was John Zorn’s “The Alchemist.” A manic piece that evokes images of a mad scientist, the sprawling score is thorny, taught, and mysterious, evoking miniature worlds of molecules and moments of soft epiphany. The quartet’s impassioned performance held the audience in rapt attention.
As much a part of Brooklyn Rider’s artistic DNA is the group’s travels to the Middle East and collaborations with Iranian composer and kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor. Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen composed his “Three Miniatures for String Quartet” with Kalhor’s style in mind. The lush melodies and ethereal atmosphere evoked ancient worlds and epic stories, albeit in small form.
The four members of Brooklyn Rider - violinists Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen - achieve a cohesion in their sound that is striking in its clarity. The violinists and violist perform standing up, and the cellist sits on a raised platform; this height drives the physical energy and feeds directly into the music. With a less skilled ensemble, the charm of Mendelssohn would easily get lost among the false harmonics, ponticello, and angular rhythms of contemporary styles. Brooklyn Rider is fully committed to the early repertoire as it is to the future, and the group carries chamber-loving audiences along for the journey.
Extra applause is due to the University of Chicago. While the school opened the new Logan Center for the Arts with great fanfare, it quietly renovated the neo-gothic Mandel Hall with richly improved acoustics and lighting, a new paint job, and, thankfully, brand new seats. Yes, you read correctly. Gone are the squeaky, oddly reclining, and cramped chairs, replaced with comfortable and roomy seats that are worthy of the stellar programming of the University of Chicago Presents series.