Two incredible, and incredibly different, young string quartets–the St. Lawrence and Brooklyn Rider–in two days. How good can it get?
The St. Lawrence String Quartet played Zankel Hall Tuesday night March 8. Razor-sharp ensemble, extremely well worked-out interpretations of Haydn (Op. 20 No. 4), John Adams (String Quartet, composed for the group), and Schubert (the great G major, D. 887). “Its mission is to present music to the audience in vivid color, with pronounced communication and teamwork, and with great respect for the composer,” says the group’s biography in the program book, and I couldn’t put it better myself. The playing was so alive, so full of energy. It’s the epitome of a traditional, acoustic classical ensemble, performing with such commitment and interest that I thought to myself that there can’t help but be a future for this music and this sort of ensemble. Absolutely riveting.
Here they are, playing a minuet from a different Haydn quartet:
My dad once pointed out to me that a really good string quartet can produce as much or more tension and excitement and meaning as the largest symphony orchestra. That insight kept recurring to me as the evening progressed.
Great to see the violinists swap first-chair roles for the halves of the concert. This is happening more and more, and while it doesn’t work for every group, I like it, especially the egalitarian symbolism of it. Concerts, whether we realize it or not, create and reinforce social relationships, as Christopher Small has pointed out. The evaporation of the first/second chair distinction appeals to me. Also interesting was the dressy-casual diversity of the men’s dress: one violinist in black shirt and slacks, the other with a suit but no tie, and the cellist with a lavender shirt and big bow tie.
I hadn’t been to Zankel for several years. It’s one of my favorite places to attend a concert in New York: great acoustics in a visually attractive space.
The next day, Wednesday March 9, I’d gone with my daughter to a theater matinee and, feeling a bit tired, was tempted to stay home. But the Tully Scope concert with Kayhan Kalhor playing the kamancheh with the string quartet Brooklyn Rider sounded too fascinating, and too relevant to my sabbatical mission of experiencing the musical love children of mated genres, to miss.
It was sensational. “I’ve been to a lot of concerts in New York,” a fellow string professor on sabbatical told me afterwords. “This was the best.” “It was incredible,” said a new acquaintance in the music business. Huge, cheering, standing ovation at the end of both the concert and even the encore.
Brooklyn Rider, like the St. Lawrence, is a fabulous young string quartet, but towards the other end of the spectrum. Amplified with pickup mics for the entire concert, the violinists and violist standing, the cellist on a platform, they play with technical assurance, musicality, imagination, and on-fire energy. After a terrific performance of Giovanni Sollima‘s Federico II from Viaggio in Italia (2000), they presented the world premiere of Philip Glass’s Suite for String Quartet from Bent (1997).
Brooklyn Rider playing a different Glass piece:
So how do you end up doing a world premiere 14 years after the music was composed? The music started as part of the score for the film version of Bent, a powerful play dealing with themes of love, oppression, and torture, in this case the horrifying treatment gay men at the hands of the Nazis. The Emerson Quartet is heard in the movie’s soundtrack, but this was its first concert performance.
I saw Bent in its searingly moving 1979-1980 Broadway production featuring Richard Gere and David Dukes. As a young man struggling to coming to terms with my own sexuality, it made a huge impact on me. Although I haven’t seen the film version (which I recall receiving mixed reviews), knowing what it was composed for gave it a special, deep relevance for me.
Then the melding of musical worlds began. Brooklyn Rider frequently performs as part of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project. And so does Kayhan Kalhor, an amazingly skilled and sensitive performer on the kamancheh, described in the program as a “Persian spiked fiddle.” An improviser (of course, since improvisation is integral to virtually every music except Western classical) and composer, he brought a quietly deep and wise presence that complimented the youthful enthusiasm of the quartet as well as bassist Shawn Conley and percussionist Shane Shanahan.
One of the delights of the evening was discovering what a fine composer and arranger Colin Jacobsen, one of Brooklyn Rider’s violinists, is. Before intermission, the combined forces performed his 2008 Beloved, do not let me be discouraged. It was a beautiful combination of Western and Persian musical elements. Jacobsen writes in his program note for the piece, “In our ears, Persian music expresses a deep desire to lose oneself in love.”
Beloved, do not let me be discouraged:
Maybe that was what made the evening such a success. There was an absolute sense of love and joy in music making. The people I talked to at intermission seemed, like me, to be on a high. There was a crowd at the CD table.
After intermission, Kalhor did an extended solo improvisation, full of melodic inventiveness and motivic play. I wish I knew enough about Persian music to be able to describe it. As a matter of fact, I wish I had a better musical memory in general (or hadn’t forgotten to bring a pen so I couldn’t take notes) and could describe the pieces that followed. I was enjoying the concert so much, so present in the moment, that I don’t remember that much of the actual music. This often happens when I (and others) improvise; you experience the music so fully that the brain’s memory chip gets overridden. Colin Jacobsen’s Atashgah (2011) followed the improvisation. He and Nick Cords, the group’s violist, had visited Iran in 2004, where (if I understand correctly) they first met and heard Kalhor play. This experience inspired him to begin composing and arranging, and this piece is one of the results. So, too, was the concluding Ascending Bird (2006), an arrangement by Jacobsen and Siamak Aghaei of a folk tune Jacobsen and Cords heard in a field recording Aghaei played for them during that seminal trip to Iran.
As I mentioned before, the audience leapt to its feat at the end, and a rousing encore of Brooklesca, evidently a signature tune for the group, with plenty of room for others and improvised solos, received its own standing ovation.
Brooklesca, with just four players (cool video, too):