Dallas — The string quartet Brooklyn Rider is probably best known for their collaborations with multi-genre musicians such as Philip Glass and Béla Fleck as well as for their fedora-and-skinny-jeans vibe. In their performance at Dallas City Performance Hall in the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Recital Series on April 26, Brooklyn Rider showed that these hipsters can play Haydn, too.
They began their program with Haydn’s String Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3. This quartet is nicknamed the “Rider”—get it? The Haydn, though not this group’s ostensible forte, was one of the most compelling pieces on the program. They performed the quartet with ample energy and tapered phrases beautifully at the ends of musical lines.
However, violinist Colin Jacobsen, a technically facile player, sometimes lacked a core to his sound in the Haydn, an issue that dissipated during the course of the program, perhaps as he adjusted to the hall; while violinist Johnny Gandelsman, despite distractingly eccentric technique, managed to produce a full, rich sound. Violist Nicholas Cords may be the strongest player in the group in some respects—his resonant, full viola sound was at times a wonder to behold. Cellist Eric Jacobsen (brother of violinist Colin) has impressive facility and a warm tone.
Brooklyn Rider is best known for bringing contemporary music to a mainstream audience, though—their performances of 18th- and 19th-century repertoire seem like mere nods to tradition.
And that’s fine, because what they do, they do very well. Unlike most quartets, everyone except the cellist plays standing up. This unconventional approach not only makes them look more like a rock band onstage but also gives them freedom to use their feet as percussion instruments. In both Gonzalo Grau’s “Five-Legged Cat,” a meringue in 5/8 time, and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s rhythmically complex set of five movements, “Dig the Say,” all four members of Brooklyn Rider stomped and tapped with enough vigor that I was concerned for the health of their knees.
This program features music inspired by the work of other artists. While some of those are jazz (Chick Corea) or R&B (James Brown), two pieces were inspired by 20th-century American writers: Bill Frisell’s John Steinbeck by, well, you know, and Aofie O’Donovan’s Show Me by William Faulkner. The only truly obvious influence, however, was in Christina Courtin’s Tralala, which she characterizes as “A simpler Stravinsky.” Certainly, Stravinskian harmonies were in evidence in her piece, and although she says she was influenced by Firebird, Pulcinella and Petrouchka seem more apparent.
One of the most engaging pieces on the program was Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche’s Ping Pong Thumble Thaw. While I have been underwhelmed by some of Kotche’s other forays into music for orchestral instruments, this rhythmically focused piece, much of which is played pizzicato, not only shows off Brooklyn Rider’s tight ensemble and technical skills, but also demonstrates what happens when an indie-rock drummer writes for string quartet—the rhythms are difficult, complicated—and delightful.
Brooklyn Rider is an accomplished ensemble who is offering the musical world a bit of what the Kronos and Turtle Island Quartets offered a quarter-century ago: young, extraordinarily gifted players who reject the tailcoats of their predecessors, adopting instead an on-trend look and a contemporary but accessible sound. They show that new music, far from being strange-sounding and inaccessible, can be engaging and delightful, without resorting to yet another string arrangement of Hendrix or Radiohead.