The string quartet was once the dominant type of performance group within Western music. Hundreds of years ago, the wealthy people regularly attended orchestra concerts and performances by smaller chamber groups. Unfortunately, the classical presentation and unique harmonic sound of the string quartet has faded over the past century with the evolution of new genres of music; people of our generation would usually prefer to listen to Beyoncé over Beethoven. Some quartets, however, have attempted to adapt to the changing musical scene by evolving themselves, especially by embracing modernist musical trends and using techniques that evoke popular rather than chamber music.
Brooklyn Rider, a contemporary string quartet based in New York City, is among such modern day groups that have been able to pull off this feat magnificently. It is at the forefront of the recent movement to reface classical music and rekindle its cultural presence by appealing to this generation’s music consumers. Featuring violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobson, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen, Brooklyn Rider is a group on the rise: their recent successes include two national tours and performances in Hong Kong and Beijing. This past Tuesday, the Eastman School of Music hosted the group as part of its Kilbourn Concert Series in a performance that is arguably one of the best Eastman has seen in years.
Rider dazzled the audience with their obvious command of their instruments. In a genre in which even the most seemingly inconspicuous error can designate a group as amateurs in the eyes of the audience, each musician performed flawlessly and with astounding precision, infusing each note with a youthful energy that kept the audience absorbed for the entirety of the two-hour show. Though he didn’t have many solos, Eric Jacobsen’s immense talent as a cellist came through each time he took the spotlight. Likewise, Gandelsman conjured up breathtaking, technically demanding melodies on the violin.
Among the Riders’ impressive repertoire, perhaps the only widely recognized piece was Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 1 in E-Flat, a 25-minute tour de force of powerful sound that suited the group’s performance style superbly. The other five pieces they performed were more contemporary, all of which were written within the last two decades by musicians who are friendly with the group. Violinist Colin Jacobson showed off his versatility with his composition, “Three Miniatures for String Quartet,” a refreshing and intellectually stimulating view of how much chamber music has evolved.
The best performance of the night came at the end of the first act with a song called “Maintainence Music.” According to Cords, who introduced the piece, the composition is the work of Irish composer Dana Lyn, a Brooklyn resident who tried to capture the sounds in the life of a sanitation worker in New York City. Though the other pieces were musically stellar, this piece was by far the most dynamic of the night. The harmonies and suspensions worked together to create a storyline which the audience enthusiastically embraced. Works like this are the bread and butter of Brooklyn Rider’s musical bravado; they are able to take abstract musical ideas and apply them in ways that are both pleasant and intriguing to listen to. Though not on par with “Maintenance Music,” every contemporary song Brooklyn Rider performed that night demonstrated this unique quality.
As a city that boasts one of the top collegiate music programs in the country, Rochester is spoiled by the sheer number of quality performances available to the average resident. It’s a tough environment for musical groups to stand out in. Despite that, Brooklyn Rider was still able to impress an audience comprising dozens of music majors and enthusiasts, many of whom were local musicians.
Overall, the show was geared more towards those who have a greater understanding of chamber music, especially among the younger audience members that were predominantly Eastman students. That said, those with any knowledge or interest in chamber music would call the performance an incredible one.
Pascutoi is a member of the class of 2015