For the past few years, Brooklyn Rider have pushed the envelope pretty much as far as a string quartet can go, and in the process have raised the bar for other groups: they transcend any preconception about what serious composed music is all about. Their latest album, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac – streaming at Spotify – is their most ambitious effort yet, and may well be the one that most accurately captures what the group is all about. They draw on a wide composer base, including their own members, an A-list of mostly New York-based players and writers across the musical spectrum, from indie classical to Americana to rock and now even jazz.
It’s also a dance album in many respects – pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s similarly eclectic Dances of the World Chamber Orchestra also comes to mind. Beyond the rhythms – everything from funky grooves to waltzes and struts and the hint of a reel or a stately English dance – dynamics are everything here. The pieces rise and fall and shift shape, often with a cinematic arc. The first track is Rubin Kodheli‘s Necessary Henry!, the group – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – establishing an ominous/dancing dichotomy out of a stormy intro. It may have originally been written for Kodheli’s snarlingly majestic cello metal band Blues in Space.
Maintenance Music, by Dana Lyn shifts from a lustrous fog with distant echoes of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here to a slow waltz and then a chase scene – it’s the most cinematic piece here. Simpson’s Gap, by Clogs‘ Padma Newsome makes a good segue, an Appalachian ballad given bulk and heft with fluttering echoes, as if bouncing off the mountain walls and down into the valley below.
The Haring Escape, by saxophonist Daniel Cords veers from swaying, echoing funk, to slowly shifting resonance, to an aggressive march. Aoife O’Donovan’s Show Me is akin to something Dvorak would have pieced together out of a gentle Hudson Valley dance. Jazz pianist Vijay Iyer‘s Dig the Say gives the quartet a theme and variations to work, a study in counterrythms, funky vamps bookending a resonantly atmospheric interlude.
There are two pieces by indie rock drummers here. Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier – most recently witnessed trying his best to demolish the house kit at Glasslands a couple of weeks ago – contributes the most minimalist piece here, Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s Ping Poing Fumble Thaw being more pointillistic. The album continues on a kinetic path from here until the very end, through Ethan Iverson‘s Morris Dance – which blends contrastingly furtive and calm themes – then Colin Jacobsen’s Exit, with Shara Worden on vocals, a triumphantly balletesque, swirling, rather Reichian piece. The most rhythmically emphatic number here is by Gonazlo Grau, leader of explosive psychedelic salsa band La Clave Secreta. After Christina Courtin’s raptly atmospheric Tralala, the quartet ends with a warmly measured, aptly pastoral take of John Steinbeck, by Bill Frisell.
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.
Violists don’t usually play solo. It’s rarer still that a violist puts out a solo recording, considering the relative paucity of solo works for the instrument. But Brooklyn Rider’s brilliant Nicholas Cords – “The Sheriff” to his string quartet bandmates – has just released his solo debut, Recursions. Inspired by the theoretical glimpse into the infinite – some would say the supernatural – created by setting two mirrors face to face, the album explores repetitive patterns from across the ages. In so doing, Cords potentially puts himself on the hot seat in terms of sustaining interest. And he pulls it off – as he reminds in the liner notes, with repetition comes familiarity and then insight. Not only is this a very comforting album, it’s sonically gorgeous: the natural reverb at the “Orchard” where it was recorded enhances the music’s often otherworldly quality.
Cords opens with a Heinrich Biber passacaglia (postlude to the composer’s 1676 Rosary Sonatas), variations on a simple four-chord descending progression, hypnotic yet dynamically-charged, with subtle rhythmic shifts and a resilient sostenuto. A violin piece that’s translated well to the viola, it sets the stage for the rest of the record.
Cords’ trance-inducing, marvelously ambient arrangement of the Irish traditional tune Port Na BPucai follows. Edmund Rubbra’s Meditations on the Byzantine Hymn O Quando El Cruce works its way methodically from an oddly Celtic-sounding pulse to vibrant pizzicato chromatics, suspensefully crescendoing, insistent motives and then a rapt calm. Alan Hovhaness’ Chahagir (Armenian for torchbearer) is plaintive and haunting, emotionally what one would expect from the year 1945 – although it has a baroque tinge – Cords loosening his vibrato and letting the phrases linger. His own multitracked suite Five Migrations builds a series of looped melodies: an echoing Kayhan Kalhor-esque miniature; slow wary circles spiced with edgy doublestops; and Middle Eastern allusions (no surprise considering Cords’ long association with the Silk Road Ensemble).
Cords achieves cello-like lows throughout a tersely brooding take of Stravinsky’s Elegie for Solo Viola. The album closes with Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Viola, its somewhat peevish motives getting a lively bit of Bartokian agitation and moving from there through bracing morosity, jauntiness and austerity. Who is the audience for this album? Anyone with a taste for quiet, contemplative sounds with an edge.
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.
To call cutting-edge string quartet Brooklyn Rider’s new album Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass a “cohesive performance” doesn’t remotely do it justice. Other than solo passages, which are relatively few, it is for all intents and purposes impossible to tell the individual players apart. More often than not, the overall sound is like a giant, animated accordion. The players – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen – don’t take their phrasing lightly. Each one digs in with an intensity and a group vision that borders on the telepathic. It’s absolutely impossible to think of an ensemble better suited to these attractive, often absolutely beautiful pieces (Glass himself serves as co-executive producer here, which pretty much says it all).
Like a lot of other composers, Glass has no shyness about recycling his favorite ideas and riffs – and if they’re as memorable as the ones here, why not? As is their custom, the group put them in historical context, opening with the premiere recording of Glass’ Suite from “Bent” for String Quartet, an endless series of permutations on warmly consonant broken chords: it’s like an extended rock suite for string quartet, and it’s a hit. Then they take it back in time for Glass’ String Quartet No. 3 (a homage to Yukio Mishima), which uses a similar broken-chord device, and then his String Quartet No. 1 which is more of a tone poem, an exercise in effectively hypnotic atmospherics. The second cd here includes three more string quartets. No. 4 works an endless, almost imperceptibly crescendoing series of eighth-note passages, a real workout for the musicians, but their stamina never cracks. No. 2 is more hypnotic, a dizzying series of echo effects that sometimes hover, sometimes make a fugue with the warmth of the underlying atmospherics. No. 5, which concludes this massive recording project, trades off repetitive, circular themes that sometimes evoke the group’s landmark 2008 collaboration with Kayhan Kalhor, Silent City: it closes the album on an aptly pensive note. To have this much beauty in one place is a treat in itself. To hear it played as seamlessly and spiritedly as Brooklyn Rider have done here is even more of one. They’re at Alice Tully Hall, with Kalhor, on March 9 playing and premiering some of this, a concert not to be missed if you’re a fan.
Sunday at Galapagos composer/singer/multi-instrumentalist Lisa Bielawa and an inspired cast of indie classical types played a stunningly eclectic mix of new material from her two latest albums, Chance Encounter (with the Knights and soprano Susan Narucki) and In Medias Res (with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project conducted by Gil Rose). The concert got off to a rough start: drummer Bob Schultz was game to recite a series of occasionally bizarre, frequently amusing overheard-on-the-street quotes over what turned out to be pretty steady solo drums, but he wasn’t given a soundcheck (big mistake) and consequently the lyrics were often inaudible. And in the rap era, making the beats fit is part of the fun; this piece seemed more of an slapdash attempt at jazz poetry with random words set to an unrelated rhythm.
Things got exciting fast after that. Harpist Ina Zdorovetchi played another piece from the BMOP album, shifting from unselfconsciously Romantic cinematics to a mysterioso theme, followed by pianist Sarah Bob playing another solo work that went in the opposite direction, a tug-of-war between consonant comfort and bracing, wide-open, sky-at-night atonalities. After a pause for technical difficulties, the excitement went up another notch. Split between the stage and the back balcony, members of the reliably surprising indie orchestra the Knights turned in a marvelously orchestrated (in both senses of the word), strikingly stereo version of Bielawa’s Prologue and Topos Nostalgia section from Chance Encounter. Alternating fugal astringencies between the two sections of the ensemble with still, quiet beauty and the occasional playful conversation between instruments, it was a showstopper: flutists Alex Sopp and Lance Suzuki along with violinist Carla Kihlstedt backlit by the sound booth while Narucki and several of the Knights held court onstage, among them violinists Colin Jacobsen and Christina Courtin, violist Nicholas Cords, oboeist Adam Hollander and Bielawa herself adding terse, pensive accents on piano.
The program concluded with Kihlstedt singing the Song from Bielawa’s Double Violin Concerto, a potently effective transposition of modernist melodicism to a traditionally classical framework, accompanied by string quartet, viola, piano and harp. That Kihlstedt was able to sing her tricky counterrhythms while playing was impressive enough: what was breathtaking was how powerfully she belted those off-center tonalities. Clear, pure and laserlike, she didn’t have much of anything in common with Narucki’s virtuosically operatic delivery, but she was every bit as intense and compelling, maybe more.
In addition to the music, two short films were screened: Lisa Guidetti’s 2007 lushly summery, awardwinning look at Chance Encounter being played in Chinatown’s Seward Park, and Renato Chiocca’s view of Chance Encounter as it was created – to expose random outdoor audiences, pretty much anywhere (in this case, Rome), to the work of new composers. It’s as simple as bringing a truckload of chairs and letting the audience assemble without knowing that they’re in store for what could be an amazing free concert.
Since they take their name and inspiration from the Blue Rider Group, the defiant, short-lived Munich assemblage whose membership included Kandinsky, Schoenberg and Scriabin, it only made sense that Brooklyn Rider’s concert Monday night at the Angel Orensanz Center would take place in the midst of an art exhibition. Like the composers the string quartet plays, the artists were a polyglot bunch and some of their work here proved to be equally dazzling. Kevork Mourad, who also plays saz (Turkish lute) and is a member of the Silk Road Ensemble, had several eerily vertiginous black-and-white works done in alternately bold and strikingly precise fingerpaint, evoking some of Randi Russo’s work. He also had a fascinatingly Escheresque concert hall – that’s not the half of it – echoed by the equally provocative, Escheresque Lennie Peterson illustration used as artwork for the string quartet’s new cd Dominant Curve. Also on display were what appeared to be photo transfers by Mary Frank, juxtaposing the playful with the gruesome, as well as a handful of casually striking ink-and-paper works in Farsi by Golnar Adili. All of these works are on sale, a portion of the proceeds to benefit the quartet’s next recording: they’re all up at the Brooklyn Rider site, scroll down the front page a bit and click on the vertical “Art Gallery” button in the middle.
There was also music. The new album is quite extraordinary, got a glowing review here and the songs from it that the quartet played were even more intensely and joyously delivered live. Cellist Eric Jacobsen admitted to a case of nerves playing in front of a crowd of friends: “But what is nerves but chemicals in your body getting you high?” he asked. “Thanks for getting us high.” With the bar in the back, what was on the walls and the group in front of them, it appeared that the audience was just as high.
That Debussy’s String Quartet, the closing number, wasn’t the highlight of the show speaks to the quality of the other works on the bill. That one they attacked with abandon, just a tad short of recklessly, cello intense, percussive and full-bodied, Nicholas Cords’ viola supplying a warm, almost hornlike tone during the quieter circular sections of the second movement. Their string rearrangement of John Cage’s darkly bluesy early piano work In a Landscape seemed on the album to be a series of artfully produced loops assembled by guest Justin Messina – as it turned out, it’s not. The group played every note of its hypnotically stately permutations, with Messina’s live electronics limited to a suspenseful drone. Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s soundscape, …al niente, benefited from an inspired cello-driven raveup in the midst of horizon-induced, hypnotic ambience, and guest Kojiro Umezaki cleverly and playfully added both live shakuhachi and subtle electronic undercurrents to his own composition (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise. The opening piece, violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (a Debussy allusion) set alternately warm, memorably melodic solo passages, notably some lightning cadenzas by violinist Johnny Gandelsman, side by side with either acidic or lush atmosphere as background. They encored with the night’s most ecstatic work, an intense, hauntingly galloping version of Ascending Bird, the Kayhan Kalhor composition from their landmark collaboration with the Iranian composer, Silent City, from 2008.
It makes sense that pioneering string quartet Brooklyn Rider would feel close to Debussy, considering their background as classical players who, these days anyway, specialize in world music. The perennially cutting-edge Brooklyn group appear on the latest Silk Road Ensemble album; their first cd included strikingly original arrangements of Armenian folk songs plus a tango by Russian-born violist/composer Ljova. With credits and credentials like that, they hardly need a career boost, but this hypnotically beautiful, stunningly imaginative cross-pollinating work is exactly that. The album’s central theme could be summed up somewhat reductionistically as circularity: this is a collection of new commissioned pieces based on elements that return and echo with a deliberately hypnotic effect, tonally, rhythmically and volume-wise. The concept goes back as far as humanity does, expanding over the centuries and when Debussy discovered Javanese gamelan music, that was the quantum leap, in terms of western classical music at least. The genius of this album is simply picking up where Debussy left off.
Smartly, Brooklyn Rider make Debussy’s lone string quartet the centerpiece here rather than the opening or concluding track, setting it in context with the new works around it. It’s amazing how new and fresh it sounds, delivered with particular percussive verve, nudging the listener to tune in to ideas resonating elsewhere here – unison passages, echoes of Russian and Asian tonalities in the first movement, the swirling repetition of the second and gamelanesque allusions in the last one. There are also motifs that have insinuated themselves into rock music over the years: listen closely and you’ll find them!
Ensemble member and violinist Colin Jacobsen’s Achille’s Heel (Debussy’s birth name was Achille-Claude) displays a strong Kayhan Kalhor influence, and no wonder, considering how closely the group has worked with the Iranian compose (their 2008 collaboration Silent City is a high water mark in East/West mashups). The theme insinuates itself quietly, growing more intense with a Kalhoresque insistence alternated with pizzicato passages leading to an absolutely haunting figure where one of the violins pedals a funereal, bell-like tone before the striking contrast of the most rock-oriented passage on the entire album. Jacobsen’s cantabile astringency in the third movement casually sets the stage for the fiery riffage of the final, counterintuitively ending much as it began.
Shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki solos with the group on his composition, (Cycles) What Falls Must Rise, fading up with what sounds like actual studio feedback, the big flute alternating between stillness and rapidfire fifth intervals. A call to alarm sounds distantly over ambient strings and a low, crackling tone that could be a short circuit (amazing how sometimes snafus in the studio translate into the best moments a group could hope for!). It ends with a good ambient jape whose ending deseves not to be spoiled here. The first of the two other tracks here is a tone poem, extended, apprehensive stillness punctuated by ambient effects, by another one of the group’s Silk Road cohorts, Uzbek composer Dmitry Yanov-Yanovsky. The other makes a fullscale rondo out of the John Cage composition In a Landscape, Justin Messina’s artful electronic loops sealing the deal as what’s essentially a blues lick runs over and over again, its permutations finally fading out gracefully. Brooklyn Rider are currently on tour: their cd release show is on March 15 at 7:30 PM at the Angel Oresanz Center. Adventurous listeners would be crazy to miss it – advance tix are available here.
Their most adventurous album. For ten years, the Silk Road Ensemble has been bringing some of the most fascinating, intense and pioneering Asian and Asian-inflected music to western audiences. On their latest cd, an all-star cast of some of the most imaginative players on the planet – literally – take a flying leap into a rich, cutting-edge program of cross-pollination with equal parts gusto and finesse. For one reason or another, it’s arguably the least Asian of the Silk Road albums, and also the most demanding – while some of the compositions here are among the most accessible the ensemble has recorded, others are far from that – but a close listen pays tremendous rewards.
The cd opens with a three-part suite by the reliably multistylistic Gabriela Lena Frank (who just won a Latin Grammy!), titled Ritmos Anchinos. The opening piece, as Frank puts it, has Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man discovering her inner latina. The second is a blissful little dance inspired by a Chinese-African village in Peru; the third hitches a raw, clattering, rhythmically tricky, reverb-driven pipa piece to a second part where the pipa takes on some particularly imaginative jazz guitar voicings.
Hong Kong-born composer Angel Lam’s phantasmagorical, shapeshifting Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain follows, building to a dark, dramatic crescendo following a sparse buildup in the Asian scale, Kojiro Umezaki’s rustic shakuhachi flute bringing back a rain-drenched, ambient feel. The second part is a mysterious narrative of the events of the first part, sweeping along uneasily on the wings of the strings.
Evan Ziporyn’s compositions draw deeply on his gamelan work, and his trio suite here, Sulvasutra is no exception. Based on an ancient treatise on the proper proportions for Hindu altars, there’s a definite symmetry here, circular, echoey and insistent, the extraordinary string quartet Brooklyn Rider interpolating atmospherics within tabla player Sandeep Das’ hypnotic rhythms. The second part sounds like what another adventurous string composer, Ljova Zhurbin, might have done with a gamelan, adding a raw Carpathian edge to the pointillistic ambience; Wu Man reappears deviously in the concluding segment, taking the piece rousingly back to Fiji.
The concluding suite – if you can call it one – is the album’s star attraction, the latest from Osvaldo Golijov, alternatingly rousing, joyous, raptly hypnotic and haunting. On the slinky, seductive first section, the Argentinian avant garde luminary proves himself adept and frankly exhilarating (if not exactly innovative) at lush Mohammed Abdel Wahab-style levantine orchestration. The still, brooding, mystical tone poems that follow fall in stark contrast with the ecstatic, defiant Sardinian protest song that fades up and blasts along like the Pogues, Galician bagpipe star Cristina Pato fueling the blaze. And then it’s over. It’s out now on World Village Music and it makes a particularly suitable holiday gift for the cutting-edge listener on y0ur list.
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.