Everything is new (music) for Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider
San Diego Union Tribune

By James Chute

The string quartet Brooklyn Rider has a startlingly simple approach: treat old music as if were new.

And new music? Treat it as if it were also new.

In other words, as the quartet demonstrated in an exhilarating performance Wednesday at La Jolla’s Athenaeum, treat everything with a sense of adventure, surprise, and even fun.

The program’s center of gravity was Beethoven’s Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 131, a seven-movement work (played without pause) that confounds every expectation about how a string quartet in the early 19th century should behave. Yet, it is widely considered the greatest string quartet ever written.

Brooklyn Rider, however, wasn’t about to worship at the altar of Beethoven as countless other string quartets have done. They approached the music as if discovering it for the first time, as if every measure, every phrase contained some new gem, some new revelation, some new twist or turn.

The result was decidedly idiosyncratic, as they played with an unusual degree of rhythmic flexibility and interpretive freedom (some would say exaggeration). But more often than not, Beethoven danced, soared and sang.

The Opus 131 Quartet not only seemed at home in the context of the new music that comprised the balance of the program, it sounded like a member of the family.

In the brief passages where Beethoven uses only a single instrument, you could hear a resemblance to the bluegrass-inspired breaks in Colin Jacobsen’s rollicking “Sheriff’s Leid, Sheriff’s Freude.”

In the harmonies created by the sustained lines in the quartet’s opening section, you could hear the extended sonorities in Philip Glass’ Suite for String Quartet from “Bent.”

And the expressive phrases that are woven throughout the piece are not so far removed from John Zorn’s highly expressive “Kol Nidre.”

The program demonstrated that it’s not Beethoven who has aged; it’s our idea of Beethoven that’s gotten old.

In Brooklyn Riders’ hands, he’s just as new as ever.