Brooklyn Rider re-energizing classical scene

Brooklyn Rider
Chicago Sun Times

By Kyle MacMillan

Colin and Eric Jacobsen now have something in common with novelist Annie Proulx, performance artist Meredith Monk, artist Kara Walker and dance legend Trisha Brown.

All are recently announced 2012 winners of a prestigious United States Artists Fellowship, a cultural honor that comes with a $50,000 unrestricted grant.

The New York-based brothers — a violinist and cellist — might not yet have the same level of recognition as many of their fellow recipients, but that’s likely to soon change.

Few musicians are doing more to shake up and re-energize the classical scene than this intrepid duo, which performs with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble and is a key force behind two groundbreaking groups — Brooklyn Rider and the Knights, an outside-the-box chamber orchestra.

Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet that joins Mozart and Beethoven with new works that blur into jazz, indie rock and pop, makes its first appearance Jan. 25 on the University of Chicago Presents series.

The ensemble, which is in its seventh season, will begin its Chicago program in conventional fashion with Felix Mendelssohn’s Quartet No. 1 in E-Flat Major, Op. 12, and then immediately will jet forward to the 21st century.

Highlighting the first half will be three selections from the quartet’s ongoing “Brooklyn Rider Almanac” series, in which it is commissioning short works by musicians across the spectrum of contemporary music. Each composer is asked to write something inspired by an artist from the past 50 years that has inspired him or her.

The project’s title was taken from “Almanach,” a collection of essays and artwork published in 1912 by the quartet’s namesake, “Der Blaue Reiter” (“The Blue Rider”). The short-lived group of avant-garde artists in Munich included Vasily Kandinsky and Franz Marc.

The “Almanac” works on the program will be “tralala” by singer-songwriter Christina Courtin (inspired by Igor Stravinsky), “Maintenance Music” by Celtic fiddler and jazz musician Dana Lyn (inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles, artist-in-residence with the New York Sanitation Department) and “Dig the Say” by jazz pianist Vijay Iyer (inspired by James Brown).

Rounding out the evening will be cross-genre composer John Zorn’s “The Alchemist,” Colin Jacobsen’s “Three Miniatures for String Quartet” and “Steven Steps,” written collectively by the four members of Brooklyn Rider.

It is the kind of brash, free-wheeling program that Colin, 34, and Eric, 30, thrive on.

Although orchestras and chamber ensembles regularly introduced works until World War II, a kind of museum mentality subsequently seized the classical world in which preserving the past became more important than engaging the here and now.

Many reasons led to this transformation, but a key factor was the shift of musical composition to the world of academia, where an audience-defying brand of atonality became the predominant style for decades.

Colin and Eric want to restore the spirit of creativity that was integral to classical music for centuries by bringing a sense of journey and adventure to their programs with ever-changing, often just-minted repertoire.

“The overall goal is that these forms that we’ve inherited, that we grew up experiencing with our parents, the music that we love from the classical canon — we can bring those forms into the present,” Colin said. “And it feels like a good time to be able to do that.”

With iTunes, Pandora and the many other high-tech ways to tune into music today, listeners can jump from a raga to rap or Vienna to Memphis in a second or two. Because of this ease of accessibility, Colin said, tastes have broadened, and people more open to new sounds.

Eric and Colin see their United States Artist Fellowship as a big endorsement of their efforts to revitalize classical music, and they plan to use their grant to keep doing more.

“It’s obviously a huge honor,” Colin said, “and for us, sort of an adrenaline shot for what we do.”