“Brooklyn Rider” Smashes Chamber Music Stereotypes At Dartmouth

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It’s not every day that a classically trained string quartet asks rock and jazz greats to compose music for a world premiere.  

But that’s pretty typical for "Brooklyn Rider," an iconoclastic foursome that’s getting rave reviews from music critics.

Capping a week-long residency at Dartmouth, they perform January 18 at the Hopkins Center.

They tried out some of the wildly eclectic program in Ted Levin’s "Global Sounds" classroom. The four slightly rumpled musicians could have been mistaken for sleep-deprived grad students. They were dressed in  skinny jeans and black T-shirts as they put down their paper coffee cups and set up their music stands.

Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen took out their violins, Colin’s brother Eric sat down with his cello, and Nicholas Cords rested his viola on his chin.

They tuned quickly and dove into a haunting theme with variations called "Seven Steps."  

It  was composed in an unusual way, for an unusual reason.

"So Seven Steps is a piece that we wrote collaboratively. You know it’s our first sort of collaborative composition as a string quartet and it was written as a way to approach the last piece in the program, which is Beethoven’s towering Opus 131 String Quartet in C# minor," Nicholas Cords said.

Opus 131  is seven muscular, often dissonant movements, with no breaks in between. Cords says the Beethoven is so difficult to master that the quartet used its own composition to comment on it, and become less afraid of it. The classroom  improvisation took  twists and turns it hadn’t taken before. 

Also on the Hopkins Center program is a world premiere called Brooklyn Rider Almanac. It’s really five pieces composed for the quartet by jazz pianists Nik Bartsch and Ethan Iverson, drummer Greg Saunier,  violinist-singer Padma Newsom, and guitarist Bill Frisell.

"The other part of that Almanac project is that we asked them to think about an inspirational figure in the last 50 years. Fifty years of the HOP, 50 years of popular culture, just sort of what’s happening in our lifetimes that’s inspirational," Cords explained.

For Bill Frisell, that inspirational  figure is the American writer John Steinbeck.

"And also he’s created a piece for us where we are called upon to be creators, too, because he hasn’t closed all the loops in it and provides a lot of options for us to engage improvisationally even in terms of the order of the composition. He’s sort of created an opening  for us. So that’s what we are in the process of figuring out before Friday night," Cords said.

Padma Newsom, an Australian, celebrates an Aboriginal painter. The quartet played his lyrical, tuneful  piece for the class.

These college students were the first listeners to hear it performed-ever. Nicholas Cords asked their indulgence as they were still feverishly rehearsing it.

"You know a lot of the ink on this concert is wet," he told the students.

But this young, adventuresome quartet seems to thrive on high wire acts like this, and violinist Johnny Gandelsman finds in classrooms great places to meet the audience of the future.

"So we end up learning a lot about many things, you know, about what we do and how it affects our audience but also about the students, their musical loves and ways they listen. And, you know, this is always changing. So, you know, it’s a great field research thing for us," he said.

As the Padma piece progressed, a few students closed their eyes. At the end, one shyly told Brooklyn Rider that she loves this composition because its melody is easy to listen to, and she will remember it for a long time.

Brooklyn Rider performs at Spaulding Auditorium at Dartmouth’s Hopkins Center  Friday at 8:00 p.m.

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