Brooklyn Rider & Kayhan Kalhor review: unchanging aesthetic

Poorly programmed contemporary music concert's strong opening and closing numbers can't compensate for a sagging middle

by TRISTAN BLISS

Beloved, do not let me be discouraged closed the first half of Brooklyn Rider and kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor‘s concert at Corvallis’s LaSells Stewart Center with the exact same highly digestible aesthetic it opened on. The May 24 program’s unchanging syrupy aesthetic left my mind to wander to the harsh life of the Himalayan mountain goat. I imagined David Attenborough so gracefully narrating the subsistence existence or brutal death which certainly lay ahead for my little goat. That is to say, Beloved and the concert’s unchanging aesthetic was that of music written to serve a function subservient to another medium, such as nature visuals.

The problem was: there was no other medium. Just a poorly programmed show with so much filler that my ears were deadened before I could enjoy the few compositions I would have otherwise appreciated.

Brooklyn Rider and Kayhan Kalhor. Photo: Reza Maleki.

I had attempted to spare myself this fate by researching BR to make sure I was part of the target audience. I perused their website and listened to their 2017 release of Philip Glass’s String Quartets 6 & 7. Now admittedly, I didn’t seek out Brooklyn Rider’s music with Kalhor or Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen’s compositions, both included in this particular show. But the signs seemed promising: A recent release of new music from a composer I enjoy (if not necessarily those specific works); a review hailing them as the “future of chamber music” (Strings magazine 2010); Kronos Quartet being considered a “similar artist” on their Spotify page, possibly for their release of Glass quartets; a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette description that called them “four classical musicians performing with the energy of young rock stars jamming on their guitars, a Beethoven-goes-indie foray into making classical music accessible but also celebrating why it was good in the first place.”

But Brooklyn Rider’s marketed image didn’t align with the actual programmatic flatlining I experienced. It’s true that Brooklyn Rider is accessible and “why it was good in the first place” is subjective, but there was no “rockstar” energy emanating from the stage. A “rockstar” implies a larger-than-life persona, a personality that seems irresistibly engaging, and the energy to sell that image so effectively the audience believes it’s who you really are. A “rockstar” knows they are not just performing separate musical pieces, but that a concert is one singular performance from the moment you step on stage to the moment the curtain drops, and if you’re not holding the audience’s attention, you’re losing it.

Unfortunately, and misleadingly judging by the promotional material, there was no such energy to be found in the performers or compositions. Like most standard issue classical concerts, this one was just four Western string musicians along with Kalhor and percussionist Mathias Kunzli standing on stage, performing and awkwardly introducing the pieces.

I enjoyed the complete ensemble’s opening performance of Colin Jacobsen’s three-movement A Mirror For a Prince‘s easy to follow melodic lines leaning towards the Persian, lush triadic harmony, digestible amounts of dissonance, and simple, but engaging rhythmic motifs. I assumed the night’s aesthetic would develop and progress.

It did not. Glass’s String Quartet No. 7 followed and served no purpose for the show’s dramatic arc. As the night progressed, I realized there wasn’t going to be an arc. Glass’s latest quartet at best was plexiGlass. It sounded like another composer was hired to sound like Glass with his quintessential sequenced accelerating arpeggios landing on lush chords, but with none of his unpredictable, but organic musical development. In the program Nicholas Cords calls the quartet “almost Bach-ian in the clarity of its expression,” which is as misleading as referring to BR as rockstars. The genius of Bach’s best works is that every melodic gesture, inversion, retrograde, and augmentation is moving the composition forward, whereas it seemed any place in Glass’s quartet was as logical of an ending as another.

The first half concluded with Beloved, do not let me be discouraged, and the more interesting adventures of my imagined mountain goat.

Kayan Kalhor performed with Brooklyn Rider in Corvallis.

The second half started with what at first seemed like it was going to easily be my favorite music of the night. Kalhor, who is truly virtuosic on his instrument, for five minutes improvised an engaging and compelling piece of kamancheh music. Kalhor built the improvisation to an electrifying high and I was ecstatic to have a piece of the program I was going to praise — but then he just kept playing. For another five minutes or so, Kalhor rehashed the same melodic material in decreasingly interesting ways. Why?! If it had just stopped, it would have been great.

Now admittedly, this was a non-Western improvisation and I am judging it based on my Western aesthetic expectations. But the entirety of the show was oozing Western classical norms and more important, the program needs to work for the intended audience. If my Western ears had not been so exhausted by the syrupy meanderings of the first half of the program, it is quite possible that this interjection would have been enjoyable, as a break from Western programming instead of a continuation of the concert’s aimless programming.

The evening ended with Kalhor’s Silent City, my favorite piece of the night, but unlike his earlier improvisation, which choked itself to death, Silent City‘s effect was killed by the rest of the night’s compositions and the lack of a programmatic arc. Starting with an improvised textural section that built to a peak, followed by a traditional Turkish melody on the kamancheh and finishing in a dancelike flurry of 7/8 meter, Silent City certainly takes its time developing. But it wasn’t that piece’s shortcoming, but rather the evening’s that made me want the performance to end so impatiently. Every composition took so long to get going and engage the listener that by the time we arrived at Silent City, all my listening energy was spent. I had given it my all, but ultimately my mind was wandering with the Himalayan mountain goat.

Tristan Bliss is a recovering classical composer who thought it was dying out, but was fortunately saved and shown it’s merely a matter of definitions.

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