Brooklyn Rider and Friends at the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival

Luckily for those of us who live in Charlottesville, there is always a plethora of interesting things to do.  In fact there is an exceptional amount of really cool things to do considering the size of the town, a population of roughly 43,000.  This weekend alone I attended three fantastic events (plus hiked, ice-skated and salsa danced but missed what I heard was a fantastic party- I was too tired to go, go figure).  The Youth Film Festival on Friday night, put on by Light House Studio, featured several great films made by local kids including my own little darling. We are so lucky to have such a program here and the films were actually quite impressive.

Saturday and Sunday I attended two concerts as part of the Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival.  The first, was an avant guard type of music concert called Music  Fresh Squeezed.  I would love to wax poetic about all the wild music performed but of course, I fail to locate my f…ing program and my memory is simply wretched.  Suffice is to say that I didn’t know most of those instruments could make sounds like that.  It was mesmerizing.  Brooklyn Rider (Nick Cords, Jonathan Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen and Eric Jacobsen) performed along with Grammy award winning violinist, James Ehnes, percussionist, Matthew Gold, clarinetist, Carol McGonnell and violinist, Timothy Summers.  I brought Sam, my thirteen year old daughter with me much to her upset because Taylor Swift was also performing that night and many of her friends were going to that concert.  During intermission she got to chat with Nick Cords who, along with several other of the performing musicians, came out to mingle with the audience members.  After the concert Sam thanked me for insisting that she come to this concert instead of Taylor Swift because it was so much cooler.  Now that IS an endorsement of cool.

Sunday afternoon, Brooklyn Rider exquisitely performed the Quartet in D minor, K.421 by Mozart and String Quartet No. 2 by Bartok then were joined by Ehnes, violin, Aki Saulière, violin, Timothy Summers, viola (Artistic Co-Director of CCMF) and Raphael Bell, cello (Artistic Co-Director of CCMF), for the Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 by Mendellsohn.  One word: Rapture. Listening to them play, I felt as if I would riding bareback on a horse galloping through a snowy field.

I hope BR and friends will come back next year, or better yet, relocate to Charlottesville so we might enjoy their talents and benefit from their knack for collaboration more often.

Enjoy the following bit I wrote for this quarter’s edition of ART TIMES JOURNAL: (yeah, I think I am forming a crush.)

Hip Strings: Brooklyn Rider bridges the gap between classical and cool

By Mary Burruss
ART TIMES Fall 2013

Brooklyn Rider
Johnny Gandelsman, cellist Eric Jacobsen, Colin Jacobsen and Nicholas Cords
(Photo credit: Sarah Small)

Though it is difficult to choose one style of music that defines current Western culture, most people would not choose the string quartet.  But most people are not members of Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that understands that interaction is the key to survival and influence in the 21st Century. Even their name suggests a melting pot of ideas and disciplines. “Brooklyn refers to the kaleidoscope of culture and creative expressiveness that is making Brooklyn, New York synonymous with art Mecca. Think Paris in the 1920’s.  Rider is derived from a Munich-based artist consortium (including Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Arnold Schoenberg, and Alexander Scriabin) from the early 1900’s,  Der Blau Reiter (The Blue Rider).  Brooklyn Rider is essentially a catalyst, as were Der Blau Reiter, for collaborative creative expression in the global village as represented by the population of their hometown.
The band, consisting of violinists Johnny Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen and Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen is known for engaging with other artists, artistic mediums, and fans while presenting new and standard quartet fare via both projects produced by others and self-directed projects. Said Gandelsman in a 2011 plea on Kickstarter, “It is fun to think of the string quartet in the eighteenth century—the era of its genesis—as the ideal band of the era: democratic, relevant to its time, and a powerful creative crucible. We formed Brooklyn Rider because we believe that the string quartet can be an equally viable and potent force in the twenty-first century.”
Though these boys from Brooklyn are experts at playing the classics like Beethoven’s String Quartet no.14 in C# minor, op.131, which is featured on their 2012 release, Seven Steps NPR’s listener’s choice best of 2012 list), contemporary compositions and creative collaborations are the group’s bailiwick. As proof of their genre crossover success they were included on the roster of the 2010 South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas a hallmark event for upcoming international indie talent. How did this band of classically trained musicians go from 18th century classics to indie idols?  They took the Silk Road — as members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. Gandelsman, Jacobsen, Jacobsen and Cords were influenced by Ma’s desire to explore the possibilities of string quartet music as a catalyst for universal connection transcending time and place. “Traveling with the Ensemble opened our eyes and ears to traditional music from all over the world,” said Cords in a recent interview. “It expanded our view of the western musical tradition.  Making us less interpretive musicians and encouraging us to collaborate creatively with other musicians.” Brooklyn Rider has transformed those expanded values and given them a home in the traditional string quartet adapting it to the 21st century.
Their subsequent collaborations read like a Who’s Who in contemporary composition with names like Derek Bermel, Lisa Bielawa, Ljova,  Osvaldo Golijov, Jenny Scheinman and Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky.  In 2011, Philip Glass enlisted the group to record a complete analog of his string quartets, a collection that boasts the world premiere recording of the suite from the film Bent.
The group has also partnered with musical artists outside of the “classical” world like a 2008 collaboration, Silent City (selected by Rhapsody.com as one of World Music’s Best Albums of the Decade), with kamancheh artists, Kayhan Kalhor.  Other musicians in the Brooklyn Rider playpen include; Wu Man the Chinese pipa virtuoso,  traditional and technology-based Japanese shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki, the 2 Foot Yard trio, and Irish fiddle player Martin Hayes.  Recently, the group recorded an original quintet piece with legendary banjo player, Bela Fleck and will tour with him throughout the year. They are featured on several tracks on Christina Courtin’s debut album, Nonesuch and worked on Vega’s Close Up 2: People & Places with eclectic folk singer/songwriter Suzanne Vega. Brooklyn Rider has also sought out other artists to create new work. “We collaborate with dancers and other artists and nurture these relationships,” Cords said, like Syrian/Armenian visual artist Kevork Mourad.
The preferred way for Brooklyn Rider to perform speaks to their desire to honor all possible expression through the string quartet medium. By mixing things up they allow the individual audience member to experience the genre that attracted  them to the concert (classical or experimental)  then expose that person to something new.  An example is Brooklyn Rider’s planned program for the 2013 Charlottesville Chamber Music Festival in Virginia.  On Saturday September 14th they will play at Live Arts, a cement and glass building that serves as a less traditional venue for chamber music. For the first half of the concert, the group will perform as a quartet, showcasing recently composed pieces including some from their new album, A Walking Fire. The second half will be a no-holds barred jam session with other musicians and Grammy winning violinist, James Ehnes. The following afternoon they will perform traditional classical music in a classic concert hall venue, first as a quartet then along with additional musicians.
As if these aforementioned collaborations weren’t enough, the band members have other impressive projects that further illustrate their commitment to making string quartets a more vital artistic expression for contemporary art.  Gandelson created a medium to “explore the connection between music and the visual arts” called In a Circle which morphed into the quartet’s own recording label.  The Jacobsen brothers started The Knights, an orchestra that includes all the group’s members and other talented musicians. Eight years ago Brooklyn Rider members collectively started the Stillwater Music Festival in Stillwater, Minnesota as a springboard for debuting new work and partnerships. The Jacobsens started a performance troupe called Cirene, “a group dedicated to re-imagining timeless tales from all around the world and presenting them to children (and adults with active imaginations) through the combined mediums of dance, music and live painting/animation.” Cords particularly enjoys the connections he makes while working on these smaller locally oriented projects. “We are able to respond in a very quick and organic way in our community,” he said. “Every time you invite other artists under the tent it is cultural entrepreneurship.  You are creating great artistic value for your audience and creating another economic engine for your community.”
The payoff for all of these collaborations and cross-medium projects seems to be a strong fan base that is interested in supporting Brooklyn Rider’s development.  Perhaps the ultimate proof of that support was the response to their 2011-2012 Kickstarter campaign where the group made an appeal on the independent funding website to help offset costs of producing their 2012 album, Seven Steps.  “When you look at the costs of producing a recording as a complex number, artists definitely need help,” said Cords. The band made an appeal for $30,000.00. Between Christmas Eve 2011 and Valentine’s Day 2012, supporters donated $50,565.00.  “That was an amazing moment to connect with our fans,” Cords declared. When asked to explain the outpouring, Cords suggested that fans enjoy claiming some ownership, “They were an integral part of the creation of that project.” Part of the success may be the quartet’s global presence.  They spend more than 200 days a year on the road and spend several of those non-performing hours communicating with collaborators and fans online. “The joy of doing what we do allows us to connect with people in person and in a virtual world,” says Cords.
What is the future for Brooklyn Rider and their mission?   Next season they  are planning some concerts with one of the greatest sopranos of our time, Dawn Upshaw,  continue a promotional tour for A Walking Fire and produce the Brooklyn Rider Almanac which will be new music written for the quartet by artists from the jazz and rock world.  “Our goal is to instigate different conversations across artistic mediums,” said Cords. Regardless of what conversations they start, it is clear that they are changing the perception of string quartet music with a little help from a lot  of friends.

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