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Brooklyn Rider: Adventures in New Music

// Mar 31,2014

On Sunday, April 6, Carolina Performing Arts will host one of its regulars: The string quartet Brooklyn Rider is coming to Memorial Hall for the sixth time in as many years, bringing along renowned soprano Dawn Upshaw and, as usual, a truly eclectic program. It brings together a waltz by Johann Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, a new work by Evan Ziporyn, and a piece by Colin Jacobsen, a Brooklyn Rider himself.

At its premiere on December 21, 1908, Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet op. 10 was not greeted warmly. Traditionalists in the audience felt their treasured Austro-German musical heritage was under attack by a young generation of composers seeking a new form of expression. Schoenberg did indeed challenge the conventions of the string quartet. He was not the first to play around with musical form–both Beethoven and Mahler had added choir and soloists to some of their symphonies–but this was the first time that a singing voice would accompany a string quartet. In addition to that, the third movement of the quartet has no key signature and represents Schoenberg’s first overt attempt at atonality.

The Rosé Quartet, which performed the piece that evening together with soprano Marie Gutheil-Schoder, was one of the premiere ensembles in Vienna. The musicians performed Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven flawlessly and introduced many of Brahms’s works to the picky Viennese audience. The quartet had also made it its calling to perform what “the Moderns” were creating in Vienna, and the subscribing public was not always amused. Happily, Brooklyn Rider have not run into those same problems: The audience at Memorial Hall has cheered them on enthusiastically at each of their prior performances, and we can rest assured that the musicians will not have to endure the hissing, mocking laughter, and booing that met the premiere of Schoenberg’s piece. On April 6, 2014, the quartet and soprano Dawn Upshaw can expect a much warmer welcome.

Mastery and eclecticism, a firm footing in musical tradition, and an open heart and mind for new musical horizons: These qualities characterized Arnold Rosé and his quartet a hundred years ago, and today they are embodied by Brooklyn Rider. Violinist Colin Jacobsen is a composer himself and can showcase his work with the ensemble that consists of his brother, cellist Eric Jacobsen, the violinist Jonathan Gandelsman, and the violist Nicholas Cords. The string quartet is only one of their many guises: The four members are part of the Brooklyn-based chamber orchestra, The Knights, and frequent collaborators with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble. On top of that, each of them has individual projects to keep him busy.

Brooklyn Rider’s partial namesake, Der Blaue Reiter, was the artistic collective that formed around Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in early 20th century Munich. True to that earlier group’s ideals of showcasing the richness of diverse artistic expression and serving as a platform for communication between artists of various schools and disciplines, one of Brooklyn Rider’s main purposes is to reach across disciplines and to cross musical boundaries. The four musicians are committed to performing music from a broad historical as well as geographical spectrum. They are perfectly at home in any genre from classical to bluegrass to world music, and have built working relationships with artists all over the globe. Their seven albums have drawn rave reviews that often focus on the ensemble’s capacity to shine a new light on familiar works. Their latest CD, “Seven Steps”, includes Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14 in C sharp minor, op. 131 and has been enthusiastically reviewed as “Beethoven through a new lens, reminiscent perhaps of fin-de-siècle quartets like Capet and Rosé […] A wonderful record to challenge seasoned listeners and embrace hesitant newcomers.” (Time Out Chicago)

This embrace of hesitant newcomers is a vital part of the quartet’s success. Nothing about them is stiff and dusty; they have a contagious energy on stage and resemble alternative rock stars more than classical musicians. They are imaginative and adventurous in their programming and manage to draw their listeners in with their engaging performance style and enthusiasm. Through their work with students at colleges around the country, by performing in clubs and at festivals like South by Southwest, and with their eclectic repertoire, they break down barriers that might discourage a younger generation from entering a temple of art music like Memorial Hall.

In keeping with their desire to reach out to new listeners, they will fill the week before their show on April 6th concert with master classes, classroom visits, and a surprise pop-up performance on campus. Next fall, Brooklyn Rider will return to campus for a residency program including violin, cello, and composition workshops led by members of the quartet. Be sure to connect with Carolina Performing Arts–through Facebook or CPASA, CPA’s student association–to get the latest on upcoming events.

– Tatjana Zimbelius

When Tatjana Zimbelius moved to Chapel Hill in 2007, she was reluctant to bid farewell to the cultural riches of Vienna.  Thanks in large part to Carolina Performing Arts, she has never felt bereft.  Tatjana is pursuing a degree in comparative literature and film, with a minor in music.?