New York string quartet to revive classical style with contemporary performance

Brooklyn Rider

By Tehreem Sajjad, Daily Arts Writer
Published November 22, 2013

If you ever thought classical music was tedious, then you probably weren’t listening to the right performers. The music of the New York string quartet, Brooklyn Rider, is anything but boring.

Brooklyn Rider and Béla Fleck

Sunday at 4 p.m.
Rackham Auditorium
From $30

Formed while working in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider was born out of a desire to use the rich medium of the string quartet as a vehicle for borderless communication. The group features violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen. With its wildly eclectic voice, Brooklyn Rider is re-fabricating the 300-year-old form of the string quartet as an essential and innovative 21st-century ensemble.

Through the University Musical Society, the quartet will perform this week for Ann Arbor audiences. Brooklyn Rider will also collaborate with Béla Fleck, a world-class banjo player. Together, Fleck and the quartet will put on a show-stopping performance that will include original compositions by both artists.

One of the unique features about Brooklyn Rider that distinguishes it from other performers is its performance style and how it relates to the audience. Speaking to their listeners between pieces and showing their respect for music is one way that the musicians interact with the audience.

The group also performs standing because being on their feet helps to energize the musicians, and they find that this energy translates to the audience’s experience.

“We reject the idea that a concert is a static experience,” said violinist Nicholas Cords. “I think there has been this thing in the past when you’re a performer, and when you get up on the stage, you purposely build a wall in front of you to deliver your work like a finished project. I think we totally reject that. The audience is a huge part of the performance for us — they give the energy and the feedback — and this affects our music-making a lot.”

While it may not be the most daring or radical group to use the string quartet in contemporary classical music, over the last few years, Brooklyn Rider has steadfastly demonstrated that it’s one of the most broad-minded groups of individuals.

“Whether it’s American music or music from Iran or from the indie rock world or from the core classical tradition, like Beethoven,” Cords said, “Or whether it’s music that we write, we’re actually trying to define what we do really broadly, which is the most exciting place to be at.”

Brooklyn Rider doesn’t limit its repertoire to any one part of the world or a single era. Its 2012 album, Seven Steps, brought together Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C-Sharp Minor, “Together Into This Unknowable Night” by the young composer Christopher Tignor, and the group’s own collectively composed response to the piece.

This year, the quartet released another album, Recursions, that merges the works of a variety of different composers, including Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Alan Hovhaness, Edmund Rubbra and Cords himself. In one of Fleck’s most recently published works, The Impostor, Brooklyn Rider collaborated with the artist to make a concerto of banjo and string quartet.

“Today, there are so many different kinds of languages that are next to each other in a world where I think people’s fears may be more open than they ever have been in terms of audiences,” Cords said. “I think it’s a great time to be alive as a musician for that sole reason.”