Brooklyn Rider is an ambitious string quartet that has taken up the challenge of composing and performing across the generic boundaries of contemporary music. In recent years the group, which is made up of Colin Jacobsen, violin, Johnny Gandelsman, violin, Nicholas Cords, viola, and Eric Jacobsen, cello, has taken a particular interest in the music of Iran and formed a recording and performing partnership with Kayhan Kalhor, the world’s foremost soloist on the Persian instrument the kamancheh. In 2008, Brooklyn Rider and Kayhan Kalhor came together to record and release Silent City, an album of music they worked on in response to the destruction of the city Hallabjah in Kurdistan Iraq. The concert last week at UCSB drew heavily on the material developed for Silent City, and offered a great opportunity to hear both this extraordinary quartet and the playing of Kalhor, whose kamancheh playing creates some of the most distinctive and memorable string music being made in the world today.
The concert opened with an interesting piece by a contemporary Italian composer, Giovanni Sollima, called “Viaggio in Italia.” Although the piece was written as a tribute to the cultural heritage of Italy, and in particular as recognition of the achievements of the 12th-13th century emperor Federico II, it didn’t sound especially Italian. Like many of the works performed by Brooklyn Rider, “Viaggio in Italia” mines the warmth, intelligence, and harmonic complexity that are the bedrock of string quartet music no matter what the compositional tradition.
The group followed with a quartet written by Philip Glass for the Paul Schrader film Mishima, the String Quartet No. 3 from 1985. This is not at all a typical piece for Glass, and stands much more firmly within the mainstream of traditional string quartet writing than one might expect given the composer’s ordinarily distinctive sound, but it was enthralling nonetheless.
At this point Kayhan Kalhor came out and joined the group for the first time as they played a new composition called “Atashgah” by Colin Jacobsen that was commissioned this year by the Laguna Beach Music Festival. Its subject was the Atashgah or Zoroastrian Fire Temples that the group had visited when they joined Kalhor in a tour of Iran in 2006, and the Santa Barbara concert was only the second performance of the work.
After the intermission, the group returned to play two longer pieces drawn from the Silent City album. “Beloved, do not let me be discouraged” (2008) is a Colin Jacobsen composition that’s based on 16th century Turkish poetry. Kalhor really found his groove on this one, spinning out line after line of intricately detailed melody from the large pillow on which he sat with his kamancheh. The final work of the night was “Silent City,” which is, simply put, one of the most sweeping musical statements thus far this century. Its blend of western and eastern motifs is seamless, and the cumulative impact of the work is profound. Brooklyn Rider have created something new in music, and it looks to be something that will also last.