Reaching across centuries

Brooklyn Rider , The Knights
The Herald-Sun

By Cliff Bellamy

CHAPEL HILL – Brooklyn Rider, a New York-based string quartet, and The Knights, a larger orchestra that includes the members of Brooklyn Rider, are known for programming that reaches across centuries and cultures. Brooklyn Rider has recorded compositions by Philip Glass, Claude Debussy and original works by quartet members. The Knights have performed works from Mozart to Jimi Hendrix.

For violinist Colin Jacobsen – who with his brother Eric Jacobsen co-founded Brooklyn Rider and The Knights – the intent of any programming is to give listeners what he calls a transformative experience. “[We’re] looking for immediacy,” Colin Jacobsen said. “The music is immediate. It’s powerful. It grabs you and won’t let you go.” In both groups, programs are often a mixture of traditional pieces and “unexpected bedfellows,” which may include original compositions or arrangements of modern works, Jacobsen said. The ensembles want music they perform from different eras “to talk to each other across centuries,” he said in a phone interview from New York.

The program that Brooklyn Rider and The Knights will present Wednesday in Memorial Hall at UNC reflects that eclecticism. For the second half of the program, The Knights will perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor. During the first half, the quartet’s set list will include “Undiú,” a piece by Joao Gilberto that Colin Jacobsen arranged, and “Seven Steps,” a quartet original completed last year.

Putting an individual stamp on the Beethoven piece involves intense listening, rehearsal and athleticism, Jacobsen said. “In order for us to feel this music, it has to get in our bodies,” he said. “If you strip away all the baggage that comes with the piece, you can get to the emotional core and make it feel like it was written yesterday. … It has the power to shock still,” he said.

During a recent rehearsal, Jacobsen recalled how violinist Johnny Gandelsman pointed out a section from the last movement. Gandelsman asked his colleagues to “imagine we have never heard this piece before. You get to this moment and it just blows your mind. These chords are so powerful,” Jacobsen said.

A documentary about The Knights posted on the group’s website (available at discusses the orchestra’s democratic way of debating how to perform pieces. Jacobsen stresses that the approach is collective, but not chaotic. Eric Jacobsen, who plays cello in the quartet, conducts The Knights, maintaining necessary order for making music. The Knights try to translate some of the naturally democratic structure that comes from the string quartet to the large orchestra.

That more inclusive approach comes from trust, Jacobsen said. Musicians in The Knights often play together in different groups, compose music for each other, and work in various musical genres and ensemble types. He calls what they do “collective storytelling.” “I feel like that collective energy is what makes us us.”

The brothers grew up in a musical family. Their father played violin, and their mother (who died when they were young) played flute. They would sit up late listening to music reading parties their parents led, a tradition the Jacobsens have continued to this day. Recently, Colin Jacobsen said, a horn player from The Knights wrote an arrangement. He brought the arrangement to their place, and they did a chamber reading, he said.

Brooklyn Rider performed at Memorial in 2008 with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, a frequent collaborator, and in 2010 with 2 Foot Yard, with whom the quartet premiered a new commissioned composition.

“Seven Steps” premiered last year in Stillwater, Minn., at a music festival the quartet founded, Jacobsen said. The piece grew out of members of the quartet bringing in musical sketches, “and it evolved into seven sections,” he said. “We had a great time doing that.”

The musicians are excited about the return visit to Chapel Hill, Jocobsen said. “It’s a continuing relationship, and we love the audiences there,” he said.

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