Brooklyn Rider isn’t the first string quartet named after a New York City borough. But it is definitely the hippest.
The ensemble, which will visit the Music Academy of the West next week, from July 3-5, isn’t easy to define. But according to violinist Johnny Gandelsman, that’s by design.
It’s sometimes called a new music group, and the quartet does give a lot of premieres — more than 20 last year alone. But the players are also masters of the basic repertory. Their recital at Hahn Hall on Wednesday night, July 3, features works by two contemporary composers (including a member of the quartet, Colin Jacobsen), along with masterpieces by Mozart and Bartók.
“We see the quartet as a band for the 21st century — flexible, able to do many different things,” said Gandelsman. “We definitely see ourselves as part of a tradition, and we’re moving the tradition forward.”
Part of the tradition Gandelsman is referring to is the link between folk music and classical compositions. “Bartók was one of the first ethnomusicologists,” he noted. “He traveled all around his land, as well as North Africa. He was really affected by the music he heard around him, and he incorporated it into his own unique language.
“The same thing happened to Colin when he went to Iran as part of the Silk Road project. His Three Miniatures for String Quartet [short pieces inspired by Persian music, which will be performed at Wednesday’s concert] are a result of that trip.”
Indeed, all of the quartet’s members have played in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble at one time or another. The name Brooklyn Rider comes from two sources: the Blue Rider artistic collective, which was active in Germany in the early 20th century, and the part of New York City all four musicians call home.
“We find Brooklyn a place of great inspiration,” Gandelsman said. “It’s a place where you can literally find people from anywhere in the world. It’s a great melting pot of cultures and traditions. There are so many interesting and creative people living there. It feels like we’re a part of a community.”
Critics, when they’re not praising the players’ adventuresome programming or outstanding technique, tend to use the word “approachable” in describing the group. Stuffiness is definitely not part of its repertoire.
“We have a good time, and we want audiences to have a good time,” Gandelsman said. “We do talk from the stage a little bit, about the pieces and our thoughts behind the program. It’s important to us to make the performance memorable.
“We definitely feel the vibe of the audience when we’re performing. We want to take people on a journey with us. Colin often says our ideal audience is one that comes with an open mind and open ears, and is willing to go with us on this journey.”
Besides performing, the musicians will be interacting with the young musicians at the Music Academy, most of whom are just setting out on their careers.
“I’m only 35, but already, this generation is ahead of our generation,” Gandelsman said. “The kids who are in school now have more opportunities in front of them — more doors, more possibilities. We can point the way for them, and we can also learn things from them.”
More opportunities? With so many orchestras going bankrupt?
“Sure, there’s that. What I mean is the path is no longer black-and-white. It’s not ‘I’m going to be a soloist’ or ‘I’m only going to play chamber music’ or ‘I’m only going to play in an orchestra.’ Today, those definitions and limitations are crumbling. There are so many things one can do as a musician.”