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Crossovers Add Flavor to Classics

11.30.14
Brooklyn Rider
The New York Times

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

To many classical music lovers, “crossover” is a dirty word. And who can blame them? The holiday season is especially rich in ill-advised CD releases by opera stars belting out operetta arias or crooning Christmas jingles in arrangements that do no favors to either the singers or the songs.

The string quartet scene, too, buzzes with crossover energy. On Monday at Zankel Hall, Brooklyn Rider performs selections from its new album, “Almanac” (Mercury Classics), featuring pieces commissioned by a rainbow of musicians from the worlds of folk, indie rock and jazz. Last month, the Danish String Quartet presented arrangements of Scandinavian folk tunes taken from its new CD, “Wood Works” (Dacapo), at SubCulture. That same evening at Zankel Hall, Quatuor Ébène, from Paris, capped a performance of Mozart, Mendelssohn and Bartok with a samba-flavored encore taken from its recent album “Brazil” (Warner).

But here’s the difference. Not only is the music from these ventures engrossing, satisfying and fun, it also enriches the way the ensembles play the core chamber repertory. To borrow a term from the world of sports, this isn’t crossover. It’s cross training.

Take Brooklyn Rider. This multitalented quartet has toured with the Silk Road Ensemble and played alongside the banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, the Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and the Irish star fiddler Martin Hayes. In a phone interview, Johnny Gandelsman, one of Brooklyn Rider’s violinists, said these collaborations deepened the quartet’s approach to the standard classical repertory.

“Those are oral traditions, so the listening and the learning had to be very different,” Mr. Gandelsman said. “A lot of it is improvised. And when you transfer that experience onto the page, you can look at a Brahms score and see a written-out improvisation and remember that feeling of what it’s like to actually make something up on the spot.”

That feeling came across strongly and joyfully during Ébène’s performance of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor (“Ist es wahr?”) at Zankel. The piece has a flashy first violin part full of brilliant cadenzas. The violinist Pierre Colombet rendered them with a spur-of-the-moment wit that was almost certainly sharpened during his forays into Brazilian jazz improvisation.

And what better way for classical musicians to hone their sense of rhythm and swing than in styles that are still functionally danceable? The sprightly minuet of Mozart’s String Quartet in E flat (K. 428) that the Ébène offered during the same concert, the courtly dance in the third movement of the Mendelssohn: Would they have had the same graceful zing if it hadn’t been for all that samba training?

Mr. Gandelsman said that while preparing for performances of the complete Bach Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, he is drawing on his experience playing jigs and reels alongside Mr. Hayes. “To