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Brooklyn Rider Illumines Trinity-Pawling

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Oct 14th, 2017

From left: Nicholas Chords, Colin Jacobsen, Michael Nicolas, Johnny Gandelsman

At All-Saints Chapel at Trinity-Pawling School, Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that plays classics and contemporary music, opened the Pawling Concert Series with selections from J.S. Bach’s The Art of the Fugue, BMW 1080. Hearing four voices in several parts of this work, they re-arranged Bach’s organ piece for two violins, cello, and viola. The resulting fugal conversation between these four instruments offered tight, intimate unity that portrayed thoughtful musings on each contribution each instrument made. Johnny Gandelsman on violin and Nicholas Cords on viola provided subtle edge. They all performed with dramatic tension, flair, and seamless transitions. This performance of Contrapunctus 1, 5, 6, and 9 offered something new that freighted delicate nuance in a chapel that provides superior acoustics.

The next played one of the early quartets Mozart dedicated to Hadyn, Quartet No. 14 in G major, K. 387. In four movements, only the lively opening Allegro and concluding Allegro offered excitement. The second and third movements appeared to lack inspiration (not in the playing here, but in the writing itself). Amid the homage to Hadyn’s form and style, the last movement displays fugal elements that signaled Mozart was looking back in time before Hadyn, while trying to assert continuity with the German tradition as Mozart modestly asserted his own place. This piece remains a benchmark in the artistic development of Mozart, especially the fourth movement which delivers a witty afterthought conclusion, yet this piece is not one of Mozart’s great quartets, but rather the announcement of a new, talented composer.

During Intermission MC Ned Reade announced that Keir Donaldson, who has been the chief music advisor for the series for the past forty years, is retiring. The audience rose as one, applauding Keir for her diligent and wise stewardship.

Brooklyn Rider next performed a composition by their violinist Colin Jacobsen entitled BTT. The program notes declared that this was a portrait of New York City in the 1970’s and 1980’s and that it was influenced by both J.S. Bach and John Cage. This piece reminded me more of Charles Ives and George Tsontakis than either Bach or Cage. This quite extroverted composition appeared to stress the dynamic qualities of the city: its traffic, skyline, subways, throngs of strollers, bicyclists, eccentric artists. Punctuated by unusual pizzicato, it appeared to jettison exclamation marks into the air. There was more statement than dramatic arc. The production of unusual sounds, especially by the cello impressively played by talented, formidable Michael Nicolas, overwhelmed any narrative unless the narrative was a gallery of talented people shouting “Look at me!” The problem with an exclamation mark is that it permits little nuance. This high-caffeine composition appeared more arrestingly eccentric than offering a satisfying arc of drama. Amid the intense novelty, there were dense snippets of lyric moments.

After needing to retune their instruments, the Quartet concluded with Ludwig von Beethoven’s Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, nicknamed Serioso. Here was drama and nuance in F. Beethoven’s dense, elliptical style permitted a deep well of introverted meditation. Colin Jacobsen here played with inspired intensity. Even though Beethoven appeared to announce more problems than could possibly be solved, the fourth movement registers abundant, convincing optimism that the questions raised might be solved in the future. Extroverted resolution promised to address the idiosyncratic array of difficulties that interior meditation raised.   

Brooklyn Rider is a quartet of four remarkably strong players with a large repertoire of both classical and modern. They are an eloquent new voice that can speak the idiom of any era. Their new album is entitled Spontaneous Symbols. This album, available at their website, offers contemporary music written just for them: music that, at this point in time, only Brooklyn Rider can play.