Two string quartets from New York City, known for their fresh, innovative approaches, are coming to Atlanta this month. Brooklyn Rider will perform at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on Friday, April 12, and ETHEL will perform eight days later, April 20, at the Ferst Center for the Arts.
Friday’s concert will mark the Atlanta debut of Brooklyn Rider: violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen. All four have also been longstanding participants in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
The group’s name is in part inspired by the famous cross-disciplinary artistic collective Der Blau Reiter (“The Blue Rider”), which centered on artists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc at the beginning of the 20th century and counted composer Arnold Schoenberg among its members. The quartet finds a parallel to the creative spirit of pre-World War I Munich in what it calls “the exploding array of cultures and artistic energy” in 21st-century Brooklyn.
Three of the works on the program, “Budget Bulgar” by Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, Béla Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2 and “Three Miniatures for String Quartet” by violinist Colin Jacobsen, appear on the group’s newest CD, “A Walking Fire,” scheduled for release April 30 by Mercury Classics. The two other works, “Seven Steps,” composed collectively by the Brooklyn Rider members, and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, were released on its previous album in April of last year.
The group’s recording of the Beethoven quartet is somewhat controversial, almost absent vibrato in the slower movements and with a enhanced dynamic contrast overall. A video of the work’s final movement, made at the album recording session, can be seen on YouTube. Brooklyn Rider is not shy about making the ears stand up when it comes to standard repertoire. In his program notes for the concert, Cords states that “Beethoven was Ives-ian in this regard: that music was not made for the easy chair.”
(Cords’ mention of iconoclast Charles Ives and Beethoven in the same breath gives due cause to mention here that one of our newer Atlanta ensembles, the Peachtree String Quartet, will perform another of the late Beethoven quartets, the String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135, paired with Ives’ String Quartet No. 1, in its final season concerts April 18 and 21.)
Brooklyn Rider’s appearance at the Schwartz Center recalls another innovative string quartet that made its Atlanta debut there in 2003, when the center and its Emerson Concert Hall were less than a year old. At the time, ETHEL had just released its first CD, which I reviewed for Creative Loafing.
Founded in 1998, ETHEL is made up of violinists Kip Jones and Tema Warstein, violist Ralph Farris and cellist Dorothy Lawson; Farris and Lawson are the co-artistic directors. Using amplification for its energized, imaginative concerts, the group is consistently described as today’s foremost “post-classical” string quartet in its melding of tradition and technology. The music webzine Pitchfork‘s reviewer Jayson Greene called ETHEL “a necessary jet of cold water in the contemporary classical scene.”
The group’s upcoming Ferst concert is billed as its “Present Beauty” tour show, which will feature a suite from “The Hours” by Philip Glass as arranged by ETHEL. It’s drawn from Glass’ hauntingly beautiful score for Stephen Daldry’s 2002 movie of the same name.
Other works to be performed include “wed” by David Lang, which can be found on ETHEL’s most recent CD, “Heavy,” on the Innova label; “Early That Summer” by Lang’s Bang on a Can compatriot Julia Wolfe; Terry Riley’s “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector,” one of the first collaborations between Riley and the Kronos Quartet; and works by Mark Stewart and Huang Ruo.