Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Brooklyn Rider and Kinan Azmeh Play a Transcendent Coda to a Popular Upper West Side Concert Series

Over the last few years, the mostly-monthly Music Mondays concert series has become an Upper West Side institution. The level of classical talent they’ve been able to lure up to the corner of 93rd and Broadway rivals the programming at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. The final night of this season on May 6, with paradigm-shifting string quartet Brooklyn Rider and haunting clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, was as transcendent as any in recent memory here. And that includes two separate, equally shattering occasions where the East Coast Chamber Orchestra played their towering arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing anti-fascist masterpiece, the String Quartet No. 8.

As they’re likely to do , Brooklyn Rider opened the night with a New York premiere, in this case Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma. With equal parts meticulousness and unbridled joy, the quartet – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas – stood in a semicircle as they played. Maybe that configuration gave them a jolt of extra energy as they parsed the composer’s development of a series of cell-like phrases, spiced with fleetingly jaunty cadenzas and passages with an unselfconscious, neoromantic attractivness.

The world premiere of Jacobsen’s Starlighter, bolstered by Azmeh’s emphatic drive, was even more fun. The violinist explained to the sold-out crowd that it’s about photosynthesis, which came across as a genuinely miraculous, verdantly triumphant phenomenon. Its deft metamorphosis of riffs within a very traditional sonata architecture made a good pairing with Shaw’s work.

That the concert’s high point was not its centerpiece, a stunningly seamless perrformance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 speaks to the power of the entire program. Brooklyn Rider’s recorded version has a legato and a stamina that’s remarkable even in the rarified world of those who can play it on that level. But seeing it live drove home just how much of a thrill, and a challenge, it is to play. The contrasts between all the interchanging leaps and bounds and the rapt atmospherics of the adagio third movement, became all the more dramatic.

The highlight of the night was the world premiere of The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea, Azmeh’s duo piece for clarinet and cello. The composert told the crowd how he’d been inspired to write it from the rooftop of a Beirut building after fleeing his native Syria with his wife. It’s about memory, how it can fade and be reinvented, how tricky those reimagining can be – and how they haunt. Azmeh would look out over the ocean and convince himself that he could see his home turf in the far distance. As most exiles would, he clearly misses it terribly. The introduction had plaintively fluttering echoes of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time;. Later passages, for both the duo and each solo instrument, followed a plaintive trajectory that dipped with a murky, almost macabre cello interlude laced with sepulchral harmonics and ended as a poignant Arabic ballad.

All five musicians closed the show with a deliroius romp through Kayhan Kalhor‘s Ascending Bird. On album, with Kalhor playing kamancheh and joined by Brooklyn Rider, it’s a bittersweet, furiously kinetic escape anthem. Here, Azmeh taking Kahor’s place, it was more stark and resonant, even as the piece’s bounding echo effects and sudden, warily intense riffage coalesced.

Music Mondays’ fall season of free concerts typically begins in late September or early October; watch this space. Brooklyn Rider’s next concert is on May 31 at the Oranjewoud Festival in the Netherlands with legendary singer Anne Sofie von Otter. Azmeh’s next show is May 19 at 2 PM at First Presbyterian Church,,201 S  21st Street at Walnut St in Philadelphia with pianist Jean Schneider.

 

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May 17, 2019 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Rider’s Walking Fire – Their Most Intense Recording Yet

Taking its title from a Rumi love poem, Brooklyn Rider‘s new album A Walking Fire captures the state-of-the-art New York string quartet at their most animated and eclectic, even by their standards. Violinist Colin Jacobsen, cellist Eric Jacobsen, violinist Johnny Gandelsman and violist Nicholas Cords arguably embrace interests beyond the classical repertoire more than any other quartet in recent memory, from Central Asian and Persian music to Romany and even Americana sounds. This one finds them diving into Eastern European music new and old via a suite by one of this era’s most cinematic composers, as well as a haunting early Modernist/late Romantic warhorse, along with a gripping Middle Eastern-flavored trio written by Colin Jacobsen.

The first is violist/composer Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin’s Culai, a homage to the late violinist and Taraf de Haidoucks bandleader Nicolae “Culai” Neacsu. In five parts, the group moves through a caffeinated, circular, balletesque pulse to low-key, Romany jazz-inspired atmospherics, a gentle but expressive Balkan dance dedicated to singer Romica Puceanu, a frantic tarantella (previously recorded by Zhurbin’s rocking string ensemble the Kontraband) and finally the poignant, elegaic Funeral Doina.

Bartok’s String Quartet No. 2 doesn’t have the ferocity of the quartet that preceded it but there’s still plenty of raw anger, as one might expect from a work written in the midst of World War I. What distinguishes this version from the many other superb ones out there? Brooklyn Rider digs in hard, particularly in the low registers, Cords and Eric Jacobsen doing most of the heavy lifting in elevating the bitterness and angst (not to mention the sophistication of Bartok’s harmony). Riddled with apprehension, there’s a persistent contrast between an elegant staccato and a snaky legato that uncoils with a proto-Shostakovian dread. A wary subtlety dominates, especially as the high strings rise against the cello’s stern anchor in the initial moderato movement before giving way to the relentless pulse and anguished cadenzas of the second and the somber, smoky, funereal crescendo of the third. It’s a quietly, bitterly matter-of-fact showstopper.

Colin Jacobsen’s Three Miniatures for String Quartet draw on surrealistic, Persian-inspired imagery as well as Brooklyn Rider’s close association with the great Iranian composer Kayhan Kalhor. Majnun’s Moonshine works apprehensively minimalist permutations on a darkly catchy, allusively chromatic dance vamp, while The Flowers of Esfahan shifts from an amiably twinkling nocturnal cityscape to an unexpectedly shivery swell. The title track employs Kalhor’s signature fluttering motives and otherworldly close harmonies over steady cello for an atmosphere that’s equally infused with dread and longing. Jacobsen, and the rest of the ensemble, succeed mightily in evoking one of their great inspirations with a triptych that manages not to be anticlimactic in view of what it has to follow – the decision not to close the album with the Bartok instead was very brave.

June 28, 2013 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brooklyn Rider’s Seven Steps: In the Right Direction

There are several string quartets whose repertoire focuses on current composers (the Mivos Quartet, JACK Quartet and Chiara String Quartet, to name three especially good ones). There are others who play their own compositions, and even some who improvise, but it’s hard to think of another string quartet who manage to simultaneously carry the weight of being leaders in the world of new music, and have as much fun doing that, as Brooklyn Rider does. Pretty much every musician who makes it to major concert halls has virtuoso chops; what sets this ensemble apart is their irreproachable preference for material with substance and depth. And they are eclectic to the extreme, just as likely to dive into Armenian folk melodies or gypsy music as they are Philip Glass and Kayhan Kalhor (two composers for whom this group has become the go-to quartet). Their latest album Seven Steps is in many ways a distillation of their career, and yet a new starting point. Even if you may not agree with everything they’re doing, there’s no question that they’re shifting their paradigm.

The title track is a collective composition by violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen, with echoes of just about every place this group has been. Kicking off with a minor-key chromatic riff that bounces warily from the cello, there are allusions to Eastern Europe, Iran and hushed IRCAM-era ambience. The group matter-of-factly works its way through this eclectic mini-suite, from suspensefully slow tectonic shifts, to swirls of harmonics from the violins, to terse but lush melodicism, atonal atmospherics that rise to a hypnotically echoey Kalhor-esque crescendo and then a whispery conclusion. The second composition is Christopher Tignor’s Together Into This Unknowable Night. Simultaneously an anthem and a tone poem (which might sound paradoxical, but it’s not), it alludes to the hook from Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, swooping energetically against the ambient wash of noise from the composer’s AM radio (utilized to add texture: it never becomes intrusive). Flickering, insistent Philip Glass-like motifs (and a direct quote, maybe?) lead to a long, organlike swell fueled by the majestic gleam of the cello in tandem with the viola; like the opening track, it whispers its way out. Played at low volume, it’s a gentle nocturne, but for the musicians, it’s an inescapable vortex, a fact which makes itself loud and clear if you turn it up. It’s a characteristically vital work in the growing catalog of this ensemble’s memorable commissions.

The final piece here is an eye-opening, idiosyncratic and utterly original interpretation of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C# Minor, Op. 131. While there is an improvisational feel to some of this, notably the slinky, slippery dynamics in the introductory adagio (which begins more lento, actually), the end result is simply the logical result of the group’s interpretation of this work as the summation of a life. Essentially, what they’ve done here is tie up the loose ends, formatting Beethoven’s short, punchy phrases into a more legato architecture: Mendelssohn might have been tempted to do the same thing with it. The ensemble expands the dynamic range in the faster passages, notably in the second, Allegro Molto Vivace movement, emphasis on the vivace for awhile, but then they revert to an elegant cohesiveness: if there was ever a singleminded interpretation of this work, this is it. And yet by the end, they’re playing it pretty straightforwardly, letting Beethoven’s emphatic, unassailable confidence speak for itself: for all its apprehension, especially in the middle passages, it’s testament to a composer who simply would not be deterred, not by fashion, self-doubt, his own self-destructive tendencies or even the eventual inability to hear what he wrote. In that light, Brooklyn Rider’s approach is less radical than it is emotionally intuitive. It’s one of the most delightfully challenging recordings of the year.

March 6, 2012 Posted by | classical music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Downtown Fun with Brooklyn Rider

It wouldn’t be fair to let the day go by without a big shout-out to Brooklyn Rider, the cutting-edge string quartet who played a characteristically eclectic show last night at Pace University’s Schimmel Center downtown. There are dozens of great string quartets out there, but too few of them let their hair down and get into the music with the kind of unselfconscious exuberance these guys do. This wasn’t just a display of chops: it was about fun, and entertainment, and soul. And connections. They’ve just recently released a smartly thought-out album of Phillip Glass quartets (recently reviewed here): violinist Colin Jacobsen explained that he recently couldn’t get Joao Gilberto’s Undiu out of his head, since it reminded him so much of Glass. So he arranged the piece for the quartet, and they played it right after Glass’ Quartet No. 2 (the considerably pensive “Company” quartet, written to accompany the Samuel Beckett play). What a cool segue that was, playing up each work’s tricky, hypnotic circularity.

They also did an early Mozart piece; Jacobsen’s own intricate, playful Sherriff’s Lied, Sherrif’s Freude, drawing equally on Dvorak and bluegrass; a couple of captivating, more-or-less-horizontal works written by shakuhachi virtuoso Kojiro Umezaki, who joined them for second part of the show; and a bunch of sizzling gypsy dances, a couple with characteristically cinematic, deviously clever arrangements by violist Ljova Zhurbin, who was in the audience. If you follow this space, you’ve noticed that we’ve covered Brooklyn Rider a lot. This is one of the reasons why.

July 13, 2011 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment