TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Some 30 years ago, the Kronos Quartet created a sensation by releasing an album of chamber music that included an arrangement of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." Now the string quartet Brooklyn Rider is again blurring the boundaries between classical and more popular kinds of chamber music. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, likes what he's hearing.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: Just after New Year's, I heard about a free concert at MIT that I couldn't resist. The Moscow-born violinist Johnny Gandelsman was making his Boston recital debut. He's best known as a member of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider, all of whose players are also part of Yo-Yo Ma's immensely popular world music collective, The Silk Road Ensemble.
Gandelsman's program was Bach's "Sonatas And Partitas For Solo Violin." There was little publicity, but the hall was packed. Even Yo-Yo Ma was in the audience. I've heard some famous violinists attempt this epic feat, but none of them gripped me and delighted me as thoroughly as Gandelsman. At the end of this exhausting enterprise, Ma jokingly called out for an encore. Gandelsman happily complied with a couple of bars from one of Bach's "Suites For Solo Cello," a Yo-Yo Ma specialty. Everyone laughed.
A few months later, I found this same mixture of fun and seriousness when Boston's Celebrity Series invited Brooklyn Rider to make its official Boston debut. This concert was entirely devoted to music from Brooklyn Rider's most recent CD, "Almanac," for which the quartet invited a group of contemporary composers, many of them with roots in folk music and jazz, like Vijay Iyer and Bill Frisell, to compose pieces inspired by something outside of their usual field - other kinds of music, art, dance, literature. Iyer's "Dig The Say" was inspired by James Brown.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROOKLYN RIDER SONG, "DIG THE SAY")
SCHWARTZ: Among Brooklyn Rider's most attractive qualities are its consistently underlying dance rhythms. It shouldn't be surprising that both violinists, Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, are married to dancers Amber Star Merkens and Maile Okamura of the Mark Morris Dance Group. One piece on the "Almanac" disk is "Morris Dance" by Ethan Iverson, Mark Morris's former music director. It's a delicious tribute to these two dancers and to Morris's buoyant choreography. In a cello solo, Iverson playfully alludes to an appearance Yo-Yo Ma made with the Morris company.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROOKLYN RIDER SONG, "MORRIS DANCE")
SCHWARTZ: There's an intimate family feeling here. Colin Jacobsen is also a composer, and one of his pieces is on the "Almanac" CD. His brother, Eric, is the group's cellist. Violist, Nicholas Cords, is the brother of jazz saxophonist Daniel Cords, another composer on the album. The players always seem to be having a conversation with each other and making a conversation between classical and contemporary music.
An earlier Brooklyn Rider album called "Seven Steps" focuses on Beethoven's mysterious late quartet, the seven-movement "Opus 131" in the unsettling key of C# minor. For that CD, the group both commissioned a new piece and also wrote the title piece themselves as a group collaboration. Yet, it's the Beethoven that seems the edgiest work. Brooklyn Rider's otherworldly tone gives me shivers.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROOKLYN RIDER SONG, "STRING QUARTET NO 14 IN C# MINOR, OPUS 131")
SCHWARTZ: Speaking of inspiration, the name Brooklyn Rider derives from The Blue Rider, the legendary group of avant-garde artists in Munich, both Germans and Russian emigres, which lasted for only three years before it was interrupted by World War I. Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc were among the founders, and they produced a famous almanac that published music and art, including folk art and works by children, and essays on the spiritual nature of art and music. Brooklyn Rider is clearly a direct descendent.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Massachusetts Boston and writes for the online journal New York Arts. He played music from two recordings by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Coming up, why John Powers is glad he read the first four volumes of all humans of Karl Ove Knausgard's much-talked-about, massive autobiographical novel, "My Struggle." This is FRESH AIR.