Brooklyn Rider Rides Again

July 8, 2020

by Marc Shulgold

Brooklyn Rider. What a cool name for a string quartet. And just as the foursome chose a memorable moniker, the 15-year-old group has adopted an aggressive artistic goal.

Violist Nicholas Cords sums it up succinctly: “We want to remove the barriers that some people have about new music.” Through 15 albums and a schedule of 50-60 touring concerts a year, the quartet has turned heads and won a lot of converts to the challenging and exciting world of contemporary chamber music.

Alas, Cords lamented, the coronavirus has caused live concertizing to grind to a halt, resulting in 30 cancellations, including a European tour and a visit to this summer’s Colorado Music Festival.

Though the Festival also fell victim to Covid-19, fear not, lovers of chamber music. Brooklyn Rider is back in the saddle and coming to town. Well, virtually.

On July 23, the group will perform three works through the magic of internet video. Just as the Takács Quartet opened the virtual Festival by nimbly combining performances with conversation (chatting long-distance with music director Peter Oundjian), Brooklyn Rider plans to follow suit, blending music by Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail and Kinan Azmeh with informal discussions with the composers and, perhaps, Oundjian. “We’re doing what we can,” Cords says. “These pieces, and the others we were scheduled to play in Boulder (including works by Caroline Shaw, Du Yun and Matana Roberts) are all part of an ongoing project titled Music and Healing.”

In March of this year, the Quartet released a CD titled “Healing Modes,” featuring two of the works scheduled for their virtual Festival concert.

Of particular interest on that July program is a new piece by Azmeh, heard in its online premiere. The Syrian-born clarinetist has written perhaps the first chamber work to emerge during the pandemic. “It’s a celebratory piece,” Cords says of Dabke on Martense Street, commissioned by the group. The title refers to a street in Brooklyn that becomes the site of an imaginary block party. The music is an Arabic dance known as a Dabke, popular in the Middle East, honoring love, life and struggle.

The group’s tastes seem to run all over the world map – which creates some delicious challenges for Cords and his colleagues: violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen and cellist Michael Nicolas. “Our repertoire isn’t limited to just one type of music,” the violist stresses. “It’s wide open. In our way, we’re trying to expand the (string quartet) tradition.”

Good things usually happen when the ensemble hooks up with talented music-makers, Cords says. “Once we learn a new piece, we can then develop a relationship with it. There are composers we’ve gotten to know who know our style, so they’ll write to our strengths. But they’ll often push us into something that we don’t know. The piece by Matana Roberts (borderlands) has a score that looks more like a painting than regular music.”

In these days of pandemic, it seems appropriate that the three works on Brooklyn Rider’s virtual concert have themes related to the group’s interest in music and healing. Azmeh’s celebration of a virus-free street dance shares the program with two pieces by women who had recently recovered from serious illnesses: Kanto Kechua #2 by the Bay Area composer Gabriela Frank, and Zeher (meaning Poison) by southern Californian Reena Esmail, a much-performed purveyor of Indian Hindustani traditions.

The Quartet does play works from earlier centuries. In fact, their original Boulder concert was to conclude with Beethoven’s Opus 132 – included, incidentally, on their “Healing Modes” CD. Mostly, the group remains committed to commissioning, learning, performing and recording music from this century. Even something created in these days of world crisis.

Old or new, every piece receives the players’ full attention, Cords emphasizes. “As a member of any string quartet, you’re an advocate for the music you play. We have had a good success rate with new works. You have to believe that every piece can stand on its own.”

Brooklyn Rider will perform in a virtual concert by the Colorado Music Festival, on Thursday, July 23 at 7:30 pm. Join the Virtual Festival (it’s free!) by visiting www.coloradomusicfestival.org/register.

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