Brooklyn Rider Tears It Up at USC School of Music

By Dan Cook

Arts Beat

A review of Brooklyn Rider's Sept. 26 performance at the USC School of Music


I made a mistake in my preview feature on the Sept. 26 Brooklyn Rider concert at the University of South Carolina's Southern Exposure series.

Writing about the piece Necessary ... Henry! by Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli, I got the first part right, writing that the piece "has a driving and frenetic energy to it and builds to a rock-fueled, head-banging swagger."

The second part, though, I got wrong, writing that Necessary ... Henry! "wouldn’t sound out of place on any concert stage highlighting contemporary compositions." 

It's true that concert stages have become more welcoming of contemporary sounds — and that contemporary classical music has become more welcoming of rock influences. But it's still rare to see a string quartet (or any contemporary classical ensemble) convincingly pull off the true feel, rhythmically and otherwise, of a rock-influenced piece. 

Having listened to a recording of the piece beforehand, but not having heard it live, my mistake was this: I had simply underestimated how hard Brooklyn Rider could rock.

Back when the Kronos Quartet recorded Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" in 1986, the sound of a string quartet doing Hendrix was rare, raw and relevatory — but, if we're being honest, also a bit stilted. Over the subsequent decades, classical musicians have become more adept at stepping into genres like rock or jazz without sounding like musical interlopers. But the passion and authenticity with which Brooklyn Rider tackled Necessary ... Henry! is still uncommon. (Though Kodheli credits experimental jazz musician and composer Henry Threadgill for inspiring the piece, we were told from the stage that Kodheli is also a big Hendrix fan — and the piece shows it.) 

Unlike most quartets, Brooklyn Rider stands while playing (except, of course, cellist Eric Jacobsen). During Necessary ... Henry! — the last piece on the group's Sept. 26 program at the Music School Recital Hall (besides an encore) — the players' body language said everything. Both violinists had their knees bent slightly and their heads tilted forward as they leaned into the music — taking the stance of a rock musician feeling the rhythm, not that of a classical musician reading it on the page. Cellist Jacobsen, meanwhile, dug deeply into the propulsive, repetitive rhythm in a performance that must have been exhausting physically.

The piece earned the quartet a well-deserved standing ovation, but it was far from the concert's only highlight.

Playing to a crowd that was well over capacity — to the point that about 30 chairs were put on the stage on both sides of the quartet — the evening opened with Philip Glass's 1983 String Quartet No. 2 (also called Company). Glass' hypnotic, arpeggio-driven music mesmerizes listeners in whatever form it's heard, whether it's on an MP3 or at a movie theater. Hearing it in a concert hall, however, takes the music to a deeper, more spiritual level. Glass' sonorous harmonies, subtle dissonances and shifting rhythms are enough to induce a bliss-like trance in a willing listener, and Brooklyn Rider's pristine performance of this music was a perfect bookend to the rawness of the final piece on the program.

In between Glass and Kodheli were an embarrassment of riches, many of them from Brooklyn Rider's forthcoming album Almanac, for which they commissioned pieces from non-traditional composers, among them the drummers of Wilco and Deerhoof. The quartet asked musicians and composers from outside the classical world to write pieces based on some artistic influence, musical or otherwise. The results yielded everything from the James Brown-inspired Dig the Say by Vijay Iyer and the fast, fun, Chick Corea- and merengue-inspired Five Legged Cat by Gonzalo Grau to the beautiful yet eerie Maintenance Music by Dana Lyn and the gorgeous folk-like melodies in Padma Newsome's Simpson's Gap. 

Even in an evening full of excellent music, Tobias Boström's String Quartet No. 1 stood out as special. Pastoral at times, mournful at others, Boström's quartet is a carefully structured and at times majestic piece, with long melodic lines and a skilled use of pizzicato and harmonics. Taken together, it all adds up to a sense that Boström is a thoughtful and sensitive composer with a promising future. 

Brooklyn Rider is an astoundingly talented quartet, and its commitment to new music is impressive and inspiring. Columbia is fortunate to have played host to these important musicians.