Brooklyn Rider bridges the divide

Brooklyn Rider
News & Observer

By Rebecca J. Ritzel

It takes trust for three Triangle arts groups to jointly pick one musical group to open their concert seasons.

And it takes even more trust - no, more like blind faith - for the presenters to pick an ensemble that plays contemporary classical and world music. Oh, and two of the three presenters have never heard the group play live.

But when the buzz is good, the recordings are critics' picks and the recommendation comes from cellist Yo-Yo Ma, you really can't go wrong, can you?

UNC-Chapel Hill's Music on the Hill series, the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild and Duke Performances hope not.

The three groups settled on string quartet Brooklyn Rider for the September Prelude, a three-concert, three-city music festival next weekend. As has been tradition for seven years, the quartet will play in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill.

Last year, a music professor at UNC-CH took the lead in booking a New York baroque ensemble. This year it was Aaron Greenwald, director of Duke Performances, who convinced his colleagues that Brooklyn Rider was the group to get.

"They are, first and foremost, operating out of that essential string quartet tradition," Greenwald said. "But they engage with music that comes from outside the Western tradition." Like the more established Kronos Quartet, Brooklyn Rider incorporates "a global sonic palette."

The quartet's name is based on "The Blue Rider," a pre-World War II artist collective based in Munich. More obviously, the musicians - violist Nicholas Cords, cellist Eric Jacobsen and violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen - live in Brooklyn and spend a good bit of time riding the New York subway.

For the past 10 years, Brooklyn Rider toured with the Silk Road Ensemble, Ma's renowned world music group that performed at UNC last month. Since releasing their first album as a quartet in 2008, Brooklyn Rider steadily books gigs, always playing a mix of Old World string quartets, world music and Colin Jacobsen's original compositions.

The Duke concert, for example, features Schubert's iconic "Death and the Maiden" quartet and Jacobsen's "Achilles Heel," a piece by a contemporary Italian composer and a quartet by Philip Glass, the minimalist composer some people love to hate.

Taking a leap of faith

Greenwald - a big fan of Brooklyn Rider's albums - concedes that some of his 500 subscribers might prefer to kick off the season with a more conventional concert. Duke's chamber music fans buy their tickets in bundles and then have the options of skipping one or two concerts. They could pass on Brooklyn Rider, for instance, and instead hear the Emerson Quartet play three good-and-dead composers next month.

"These things are really hard," Greenwald said. "We are working with three different organizations that all have different aims and different volunteer boards. Especially when it comes to chamber music, there are a lot of tricky spaces and protocols that people want artists to adhere to."

Nancy Lambert, director of the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, said chamber music audiences tend to be older than audiences that regularly attend symphonic concerts or operas.

"It will be foreign for some ears," Lambert said. "It's not Mozart or Beethoven." But she says her subscribers trust the guild board when it comes to booking artists. "Audiences know that we always present top-notch ensembles," she said. "We also want them to hear one of the hottest young string quartets in the country."

Colin Jacobsen, the amiable, 30-something violinist who fronts Brooklyn Rider, says this is not the first time the quartet has been booked by presenters such as Lambert and Greenwald, sight-unheard. The quartet should be more familiar for audiences at UNC. Last spring, Carolina Performing Arts presented Brooklyn Rider alongside the experimental music group 2 Foot Yard.

"Having been to Chapel Hill, we can say that we love coming here," Jacobsen said. "We love what [UNC] does, and we're excited about the other series, and meeting those people as well."

Rider digs collaboration

What Brooklyn Rider values, Jacobsen said, are presenters who are willing to partner on a creative project. A three-day, three-concert festival qualifies. As do a few other recent gigs. Last weekend, the musicians taped an episode of the public radio show Performance Today at the Minnesota State Fair. Monday evening, they are scheduled to perform at the U.S. Open tennis tournament's entertainment stage in New York.

Playing in concert halls, as the quartet will next weekend in the Triangle, sounds lame by comparison: no Roger Federer, no deep-fried Oreos. But Jacobsen said he and his fellow musicians are excited about the September Prelude. The venues may not be unusual, but the spirit of artistic cooperation is.

"It's amazing and wonderful that three arts organizations so close together are willing to partner on something," Jacobsen said. "So often, in so many places, that's not the case at all."