Music review: Brooklyn Rider gives uneven performance at Union College

The string quartet Brooklyn Rider returned Thursday night to Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part

The string quartet Brooklyn Rider returned Thursday night to Union College’s Memorial Chapel as part of the 40th International Festival of Chamber Music series to give both a captivating and troubling concert.

Violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen have a mission: to stretch the boundaries of the string quartet repertoire and to challenge an audience’s listening experience. Thursday’s was not the traditional program of Mozart, Haydn and a little Barber for them; rather, think Philip Glass or John Zorn.

Both composers were represented, as were two compositions by the quartet itself: one they composed as a group — their first effort as a “band,” Jacobsen said — and one Jacobsen arranged from a tune by bossa nova great Joao Gilberto.

Pieces by these composers comprised the first half. They began with their own “Seven Steps,” which received its New York premiere. Lots of string effects, like bouncing the bow off the strings and plucking, were balanced by dark melodic motifs, tone clusters, terrific rhythmic patterns, a growling cello and drones and Indian motifs. It was short, colorful, very interesting and a good melange of choices.

The quartet recently completed a three-year project to record all of Glass’ quartets. They performed his third quartet, whose material was pulled from a film score about Japanese writer Yukio Mishima. The six interconnected movements had Glass’ familiar undulating patterns over a dark, swirling, romantic cello melody. Long lines, swells of sound and the quartet’s passion and superb balances hypnotized as the piece sequentially moved through harmonies and sound for the sake of sound.

Jacobsen’s arrangement of Gilberto’s “Undiu” (1973) had several more string effects that sounded scratchy and some crooning from the quartet. But he did an artful job mixing the simple melody with the bossa nova rhythms, even as he passed around the sound effects. Up to this point, the impression was a quartet that was sleek, polished, and brimming with ideas.

The second half was something else. They played Zorn’s “Kol Nidrei” (1996) with a dramatic sensibility, but the constantly high-sounding violin pitch was troubling and annoying. Their view of Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14, Op. 131 was alarming.

Although there’s no quibbling with their technical brilliance, their use of slides, no vibrato, harsh and unpretty tones that didn’t blend but were like serrating glass, created an unsettling effect. Their program notes indicated they got these ideas from pre-World War II quartet recordings.

Even another hearing with this concept wouldn’t make it more palatable. Somehow, however, Beethoven’s genius survived.

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