Category Archives: Brooklyn Rider

What’s Wrong with Classical Music? Too Much Agora or Too Much Temple?

Here it is, Thanksgiving weekend, and I’m minding my own business, not worrying about the future of classical music.  Just eating too much, hanging out with my shopping-addicted boyfriend, and spending too much time on Facebook.  But fretting over the future of classical music kept coming to me as links appeared on my computer screen and iPhone.

First was the evidently not-meant-to-be-humorous short essay Agora or Temple?, written with delightfully withering snobbishness by George Slade, on the hard-to-read (white type on a black background) site of the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra.  I wrote members of my first-year seminar class that its alternative title could be “What’s Wrong with Classical Music,” and that depending on your point of view, what’s wrong is either either the clinging-to-the-concert-hall-as-temple attitude of Mr. Slade, or those eating, drinking, socializers he so clearly believes miss the point.

The performance is all—the communion between musician, music, and listener the sacred and irreplaceable triumvirate inspiriting this unique moment. Everything else is trimming. The Dove bars, the money changing hands for discs, deals, and ducats, the jabbering marketplace of the outside world; once you enter the temple, excellence drives out the quotidian. . . . All the portico posers and agora agonists must concede their presumptions and face the music; no, you don’t get time to finish your drink. The performance, not the periphery, is the sine qua non. Someone must have fiddled with the balance sheets to make anyone think otherwise.

Of course, his is a somewhat romanticized version of what actually happens even when everyone sits down and shuts up on time.  My grandfather used to fall asleep in concerts my grandmother dragged him to back in the 1930s-1950s.  I’ve been at extraordinary-to-me concerts at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center where others made their boredom and irritation readily apparent.

It’s not that I don’t like experience-the-music-with-silent–reverence concerts and concert halls, I do.  But come on, the fact is that many people go to concerts to experience connection and relationship with other human beings.

Even Mr. Slade recognizes this: “Ironically, when the Minnesota Orchestra musicians played their Gala Opening at the Convention Center in October, the lobby came alive after the performance, when musicians joined audience members in the afterglow of a uniquely spirited program.” First, I don’t get what’s ironic about it, unless he meant to emphasize after the performance.  (Many great parties have happened after a great concert, just not always in concert hall lobbies.) Second, this could only have happened in a space like a convention center, where the lobby is big enough to accommodate an orchestra’s worth of locked-out musicians and hundreds of audience members.

If I played in an orchestra (or was a fan of its musicians) whose Board and management were asking me to take a major salary and benefits cut (the musicians say they are being asked for 30-50% cuts, while management says the cuts are merely 20-40%) when more than $50 million was just raised to pay for lobby renovations, I’d be pissed, too.  But as I see it, there’s no denying that part of the future of classical music is a greater sense of connection between performers and listeners.

Most concert halls are designed as temples, and the older they are the smaller the lobbies tend to be (think Carnegie Hall).  For better or worse, not many people want to join the participate-in-a-ritual-at-a-temple game.  The relationship between performers and listeners has to be more personal and connected.  I’m sure one of the things that was wonderful about the performance Mr. Slade refers to is that the audience was family, friends, and the most dedicated fans of the musicians.  There was relationship.

If you’re going to have a relationship with your audience, you need a place to relate.  Like it or not, if major symphony orchestras are going to remain financially viable in coming decades, the places in which they play are going to have to be more agora (a public gathering place, according to Wikipedia, that was “the center of athletic, artistic, spiritual and political life”) and less temple.

Meanwhile, today’s New York Times Sunday Review letters section features a discussion on Is Classical Music Dying?  Les Dryer, retired from the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra violin section, says the classical music recording industry is dying, the NY Phil and the Met are doing almost no free concerts, and we need to wean kids “away from the cacophony of rock and the neon glitter of ‘American Idol’-type TV shows. Instead of dragging children to concerts, where they squirm with boredom, rent some old movies featuring soundtracks of classical music.”

OK, that is funny. Les, just try to get someone under the age of 30 to watch any old movie, classical-music score or not, and let us know how that works out.

(OK, my daughter will watch All About Eve with me, but she’s an actress and I’m her gay dad and she does stuff like that for me.)

The Times posted the original letter online and various reader responses were selected for today’s paper.  Respond they did.  “Mr. Dreyer, you don’t get it. Classical music is dying because it is and long has been an expensive, mannered and stuffy enterprise as far as the public is concerned,” writes Grant Wiggins, who meanwhile dismisses symphony orchestras as “‘cover bands’ playing the same old tunes.”  One of my students has taken aback by that remark, but I think he has a point.  My favorite letter is from Charlie Hathaway:

[I]f someone is used to frenetic pop music with lyrics and videos, don’t bludgeon them with Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Instead, let them see and hear performances of some of the great modern short pieces, which can be frenetic or languid, but never boring. Expose every seventh grader and a parent to John Adams, Toru Takemitsu and Christopher Cerrone, to name just three of the many, many contemporary composers whose work would never be lumped with the dreaded “classical music,” and we might be on our way to a new generation of listeners.

The future of classical music is not in its past.  The future is in the new, exciting, forward-looking music being created and yet to be created.  People are listening to Mozart on the radio?  So what?  We are listening to Brooklyn Rider on our iPhones.

Meanwhile, I found Kevin Stevens’s letter telling.  He stopped going to classical concerts after another patron chastized him for attending a Boston Symphony concert informally dressed, and senses “condescension and class snobbery” at the Buffalo Symphony (which he doesn’t attend).  He’s neither what Mr. Slade calls a “portico poser” nor an “agora agonizer.”

He’s a stay-at-homer.

“We survived Bush, you’ll survive Obama” is the name of one Facebook group.  Classical music can not just survive but thrive in the new century and its evolving culture.

More agora, less temple.



Filed under Brooklyn Rider, crisis in classical music, future of classical music

New blood at Nublu: Brooklyn Rider Glass CD release party

“What I like about Nublu is that I can kick off my shoes, put my feet up, lean back on the couch and have a drink while listening to music,” my friend said as we settled in for the May 17 Brooklyn Rider release party for their new Philip Glass CD.  On a black leather couch, we could look at our reflections (as well of that of the art work above our heads) in a large mirror on the other side of the room. Johnny Gandelsman, one of the quartet’s violinists (who, by the way, has the most unusual, high-on-the-stick bow-hand position of any non-early-music violinist I’ve seen) had thanked the audience for coming to “the most alternative of alternative venues.”  (OK, I’d had a beer by then.  That comment could have come from Colin Jacobsen, the other violinist.)

my view of Brooklyn Rider at Nublu

More relaxed and casual than LPR, NuBlu is just a few blocks up from John Zorn’s bare-bones small avant-garde performance space The Stone.  (“Are all the really cool places in New York on Avenue C?” I asked.) An attractively grungy bar with a variety of art on the walls (some of the graffiti variety), and a combination of couches, upholstered balls (in holders that keep them from rolling around), bar stools and the, yes, the floor to sit on, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable place to listen to a concert.  Especially if you’ve snagged a couch seat.  Drinks reasonably priced for New York ($7).  The entrance is unmarked; just a booth with a (stern) doorman.  About as East Village as you can get. (Or is this the Lower East Side? Still working out Manhattan neighborhood boundaries.  At Ave. C and 5th St., it’s definitely in “Alphabet City.”)

Brooklyn Rider's performance space at Nublu

All Philip Glass music–no rock covers, mashups, or remixes, the kind of thing that some of us think is needed to bring in a young audeince, played by a classical/eclectic string quartet.  Virtually the entire audience in their 20s, or not much beyond.  Usually I go to a classical concert and, at 52, get to feel like a kid again, since almost everyone’s older than me.  What a pleasure it was to feel like an old guy.  (“I don’t think you’re allowed to live in the Lower East Side if you’re over 25,” my friend said as we took a cab home.)

This was the second time I’ve heard Brooklyn Rider play–the first was at Tully Scope.  Once again, amplified, well, and effectively.  All the players standing, except for cellist Eric Jacobsen, perched on an speaker.  Terrific, committed playing.  “We devoted three years to this project,” Colin told me after the performance, and it shows.  “I don’t like Glass,” my friend said, “but I loved this performance.”  And she must be a big fan of Brooklyn Rider, because it takes a major effort (three subway trains and a long walk) to get to NuBlu from the Upper West Side, where each of us lives. “This is like another country,” she said.

I’m still getting used to the fact that these club shows invariably start late.  The Nublu site didn’t actually list a time;  just said that Brooklyn Rider was “the early show.”  (I take that back;  I just looked again and the site says the “early band” is at 9:00 PM). The BR site listed as 9:00 PM.

But  that was more the start-mingling-and-drinking-in-earnest time.  The music started about forty minutes later.  I’d been a little antsy about getting there by the announced time, just in case.  The advantage was that we were there early enough to claim half a couch.  (Unfortunately, the other half was taken by a couple who, unlike everyone else in the place, talked through the entire performance. They were quiet only between pieces.)

I was entranced by the music.  If I wasn’t pretty broke now from New-York-overspending syndrome, I’d buy the BR CD of the complete Glass quartets. They played the Fourth Quartet, the Second (“Company”), and the Third (“Mishima,” for the film it was composed for.)

Cool place.  Great group. Fantastic music.  Young crowd, listening attentively (except for the chatty couple next to me), clearly absorbed.

There is a younger audience. Glad to have been there with them.

One of the Nublu staff has written me that the Nublu Orchestra with Butch Morris will be doing four shows next month.  The June calendar isn’t up yet, but I’ll definitely try to catch one if I’m still in town.

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Filed under alternative classical performance, Brooklyn Rider, Nublu, Philip Glass

Two Nights, Two Sensational Quartets

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):


Filed under Brooklyn Rider, improvisation, Kayhan Kalhor, Philip Glass, Silk Road Project, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Tully Scope