Music review: Brooklyn Rider rocks around Debussy


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An address of distinction for young artists these days, Brooklyn is, especially for musicians, a neighborly borough where formal barriers barely exist anymore.

Brooklyn Rider, for instance, made its Orange County debut at Irvine Barclay Theatre Wednesday night but might just as well have performed in a club. It played Debussy and Philip Glass and joined forces with a player of the ancient Japanese flute, the shakuhachi. The quartet could just as well have been on the bill the same night at Walt Disney Concert Hall, where the Iranian kamancheh star, Kayhan Kalhor, happened to be appearing at the same time 45 miles away on his spike fiddle. In fact, it is a good question why Brooklyn Rider and Kalhor weren’t together. Two years ago, they joined forces for a CD, “Silent City,” and it is a knockout.


The dazzling fingers-in-every-pie versatility that Brooklyn Rider exhibits is one of the wonders of contemporary music. All four players are also members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Violinist Johnny Gandelsman has entrepreneurial talent: He started a New York new music series and the Riders’ record label, In a Circle.

Violinist Colin Jacobsen is a composer as well, and he and the Rider cellist -- his brother Eric Jacobsen -- helped found the alternative downtown chamber orchestra the Knights. Violist Nicholas Cords appears to be the musicologically minded one. He writes long program notes full of enthusiastic historical context.

Still, this smart string quartet is, at heart, a rock band string quartet. The violinists and violist play standing up, not to get a full blend of sound, as does the Emerson, but for a rocker’s freedom of movement. The players present four strong, feisty voices but of like mind. They play off one another. Every phrase, every rhythmic impulse is meant to get your attention.

Wednesday’s program -- like Brooklyn Rider’s new CD, “Dominant Curve” – took its inspiration from Debussy’s String Quartet, which was written at the end of the 19 century, shortly after the French composer had discovered Asian music. Distant music profoundly expanded Debussy’s worldview, Cords explained to the audience (all four members introduced pieces, and agreeably so), and that attitude clearly resonates with the ethos of Brooklyn multicultural urbanity.

Colin Jacobsen’s “Achille’s Heel” is typical. It begins in Greek mode and ends using Persian scales. The composer’s notes allude to Homer, Debussy’s first name (Claude-Achille) and Bouncy Balls. But heavy-handed literary baggage gets in the way. Jacobsen has a knack for a sweet, memorable groove and percolating rhythms that speak for themselves.

The novelty on the program was Kojiro Umezaki’s “(Cycles) what falls must rise” for shakuhachi, string quartet and electronics. Another Silk Roader, Umezaki happens to be on the UC Irvine faculty and is one of the unfortunately better kept secrets of Southern California music. Joining the Riders with his breathy flutes and laptop, he enticed the strings into his quiet, tone-bending world and also entered into their Minimalist rhythmic one. The shakuhachi loses character when it veers westward, but the malleable strings were well suited to meet it somewhere not too far from Japan. The electronics added subtle, not unnatural enhancement.

The Riders rocked out appropriately in Giovanni Sollima’s “Federico II,” from the Sicilian composer’s “Vaggio in Italia.” But Glass’ Fourth Quartet (“Buczak”) and Debussy’s String Quartet, which ended the program, were controversial. Perhaps it is the players’ facility with many different tunings of non-Western music, or maybe they just like a prickly, half-sour sound, but intonation was often strange. The slow movement in Glass’ somber quartet, a memorial to the visual artist Brian Buczak who died of AIDS in 1990, became, I think, too unsettling.

In Debussy, the strings were played with little vibrato. Gandelsman added a portamento, sliding from pitch to pitch, Asian style, as often as he could. And all four players went in for special effects, amplifying every little Debussyan gesture. It was a grating, inelegant performance, if a fascinatingly perverse one.

The encore, however, was a bona fide Brooklyn brew. Umezaki joined in on his shakuhachi for an arrangement of a traditional Iranian melody that Colin Jacobsen originally made for Kalhor and the Riders. Diplomats and chefs take note. An unlikely Iranian/Japanese/American fusion worked.

-- Mark Swed