Critics’ Conversation: McQuillen and Campbell on Brooklyn Rider

Brooklyn Rider

Last Saturday, Oregonian classical music writer James McQuillen and OAW’s Brett Campbell attended Brooklyn Rider’s concert at Reed College presented by Friends of Chamber Music. OAW grand panjandrum Barry Johnson invited the pair to immortalize one of their occasional post-concert discussions in an e-mail exchange. Here’s the result. Arts journalists often find that our ideas develop more cogently in conversation, but normally readers see only the final product. We’d love to know whether OAW readers find this form of coverage as useful and fun as we did, because we might do it again in future — and in events where the participants disagree more than happened this time.

James McQuillen: So, before we get to the performance, the first thing that struck me about Brooklyn Rider was the marketing. It seems peculiar that a hip, genre-defying quartet is treated as such a novelty nearly forty years after the formation of Kronos, especially since Kronos has been very active all that time, and other quartets—the Soldier String Quartet, Ethel—have followed in some sense in their wake. Brooklyn Rider can’t be held responsible for their press, of course, but they certainly promote the image. That said, their particular blend of original compositions, new music and core quartet repertoire is distinctive.

Brett Campbell: Yes, exactly. As a West Coaster, I’m always a little amused when NYC ‘discovers’ something that’s been going on out here since the early ’70s. It’s just another in a long line of West-to-East innovations I’ve written about before . Let’s not forget that the world music pioneer and “ultramodernist” composer Henry Cowell was from the Bay Area, John Cage was from LA (and conceived many of his major innovations in SF and Seattle) and Merce Cunningham from Centralia, Washington. They all became famous in New York, but that’s because it was, well, New York. Their trail blazing attitudes were cultivated out here, and if they’d received support from arts institutions and audiences here, maybe they would have stayed. Kronos’s David Harrington was born right here in Portland and grew up in Seattle (where he started Kronos) before becoming a San Francisco institution. Many composers regarded as quintessential East Coasters actually hail from out this way, including David Lang, the Pulitzer prize-winning founder of Bang on a Can, who grew up in LA and studied with Harrison at Stanford.

Despite the media cluelessness (and I just had to correct a New York Times story from Berkeley yesterday that claimed that San Francisco became a new music innovator in the ’50s — two generations after Cowell was doing big new music concerts there), the young East Coast musicians do understand this. When I interviewed the Brooklyn Rider founders  recently for another story about their other band, the Knights, they and So Percussion and others all properly genuflect before the Kronos legacy and cite them as primary inspiration. I’d say the Brooklyns are Riding Kronos’s coattails, but I can’t see those guys wearing tails.

But as you say, unlike BR, Kronos wouldn’t play original music by band members, and they wouldn’t play Beethoven. About the farthest back they’d go is Bartok, I imagine, unless you count their arrangements of Perotin et al. on the Early Music CD some years back.

Brooklyn Riders are distinctive in a couple respects, though. They play new and original music. They stand and deliver, rather than sitting. And they’re young — only one has reached the ripe age of 30, while Harrington never tires about talking about his granddaughter, which makes me feel really ancient!

So, yes, BR is nothing new, but the fact that they’re still regarded as unusual and hip says a lot more about the crazy standards of the conservative, sclerotic classical music world, where chamber music ensembles still play about 98% music written before most of us were born, than about BR. In Beethoven’s day, the idea that a string quartet would play only music by dead people would have been regarded as — how to put this as politely as Ludvig van would? — insane.

JM: I’d expect some West Coast respect from guys who live in the Portland, Oregon, of New York City. Anyway, the program cohered nicely; like their album Dominant Curve, it presents new music in the context of a classic of the quartet repertoire (and vice versa). The framing was interesting, with the opening Seven Steps, a collaborative composition by the quartet members themselves, balanced at the end by one of the pieces that inspired it, Beethoven’s seven-movement Op. 131. Throughout, the music drew on the basic principle of the possibilities of emotive expression through largely motive-driven composition.

In retrospect, and having listened to it again on YouTube, I think that using John Zorn’s Kol Nidre to lead into the Beethoven was ingenious programming, the melody of the pre-prayer Yom Kippur chant being very similar to the opening of Op. 131’s sixth movement. Zorn’s treatment of it was not what I was expecting, because I know him principally from his frenetic avant-garde downtown jazz. This was much more reminiscent of Arvo Pärt, with the cello and one violin droning on Es four octaves apart and the viola and other violin tracing deconstructed fragments of the traditional melody between them. The connection to the Beethoven was more overt in the middle section, when violin and cello dropped the drone and joined the counterpoint. Really a piece to savor.

BC: I agree that the program was adeptly put together, and I think that Zorn piece was my (unexpected) favorite of the night.

The drones at the top (high violin) and bottom (low cello) with the slow movement in the middle made a striking effect, and I bet the Riders’ Silk Road experience enabled them to feel close to that piece. Zorn’s work is all over the map — jazz, Jewish music of many kinds, non-jazz improvisation, fully composed works — and he’s impossible to get a handle on, which is a good thing in my book. I wouldn’t have expected something so pretty from him, or at least not before I heard his Christmas record.

But alas I don’t think we can ignore the fact that however attractive the program looked on paper, in execution, some of the performances were disappointing. I felt the same way about Third Angle’s concert last weekend: almost ideal concept (Portland’s most prominent author and poets, with scores written for their works, in one case by a childhood friend and fellow Portlander), but the actual music didn’t always live up to that promise.

However, in both cases, I was glad I attended because there was enough freshness, and enough moments of musical quality that it kept me more interested than another concert of ably performed but overfamiliar classics. So much promise: original compositions by the band, works by prominent living composers from very different traditions, and an immortal classic. It’s the very model of a modern major chamber ensemble.

The show opened with that collaborative composition, Seven Steps, which was pleasant but left little impression. However, as you did with the Zorn, I went back to listen to it just now on their new album (which contains much of what they played here) and found some real punch in it. Maybe it just needs more than a single listen.

The next piece, Philip Glass’s unreleased score to the film Bent, sounded like many other Glass soundtracks. I’m generally a Phil phan, but with a few exceptions (The Hours, Mishima, the –qatsi films, a few others), few of his film scores really hold up as concert pieces. That’s neither a surprise nor a criticism: they were composed as adjuncts to the onscreen action, not as independent concert pieces. It’s nice to hear them again on recordings, but unless you’re really new to Glass (happy 75th, BTW, Phil!), that music isn’t going to sustain a show. What we heard at the concert was just about right.

I liked the final piece in the first half, a two-part work by BR’s Colin Jacobsen, which was fun but not profound, nor intended to be so. So, for me, the first half was enjoyable but more of an appetite whetter.

The second half opened with the Zorn, which, as you noted, flowed beautifully into the Beethoven. I wish it had gone on longer. I admit that I’m spoiled by having heard so many great Beethoven performances here, courtesy of Friends of Chamber Music and Chamber Music Northwest, but I found some moments in this one borderline ragged — occasional intonation problems, a serious momentary lapse of ensemble and a couple other less distracting but still noticeable ones, and an overall lack of real shape or effective phrasing. The piece really came alive in the flamboyant parts where the melody is whipped around the semicircle among the different instruments — you can tell they really liked that. And their guiding principle seemed to be to emphasize the surprises in the score, holding a pause a  little longer here, rushing the beat a bit there. It was quite a plausible and often effective tactic, but not a strategy strong enough to really sustain such a big, ambitious piece. They played with enthusiasm and commitment, but their sound was smaller than, say, the Takacs (the different venues may have had something to do with that), even though the Riders stood while the Takacs sat. It was a worthy attempt, and I’m glad they’re staying grounded in the radical classics of earlier generations, but frankly I don’t think they’re quite ready for a piece of this scale.

All the tentativeness vanished when they launched into their encore, “Ascending Bird” from their Silent City album (and familiar in their Silk Road performances): they threw themselves into it with abandon, really going for the big moments the way Novak Djokovic goes for the big shots in his matches with Rafael Nadal. That kind of aggressiveness is risky, of course, but if you’re at the top of your game and it comes at the appropriate moment, it’s what makes a memorable, winning performance. I thought that the Takacs played Beethoven the way the Riders played that encore. They were sweating, pouring everything into it, even though they must have played it a zillion times.

None of this is really surprising. The Riders are in their 20s (with that one 30-year-old exception), they do a lot of other stuff besides playing Beethoven (an orchestra, a world music ensemble, and a much wider variety of music), and they’re not selected from among the world’s greatest players with 30-40 years of experience. They’re friends from music school who put together a band. They’re young. They’re exciting, but they need time to develop their skills before playing a piece like the Beethoven in concert.

So my question is: why bother? Why not just play (in public, at least) the kind of rep they clearly really connect with, as Kronos and Turtle Island and the other contemporary music ensembles do, at least until they’re ready for the classics? Does playing Beethoven make it easier to get gigs with traditional programmers? (Not FOCM, which recently brought So Percussion in an all-contemporary program, but maybe other presenters think their audiences require a certified immortal on the program.) Plenty of pop and jazz musicians jam on the classics to keep a connection to their roots, but they don’t necessarily inflict the woodshedding on the ticket buying public. Or they could at least start with a classic that’s less challenging than late Beethoven.

FOCM recently brought the superb Ebene Quartet, whose members aren’t that much older than the Riders, yet I thought their playing of both classics and contemporary works much more convincing. But again, the French group does have more experience, and they focus on a few classics and some relatively easy to play pop and jazz arrangements, not original compositions. That’s a viable model. The Bang on a Can All Stars play all original music, but don’t even try Beethoven. Kronos plays only new music, but composed by others, not the band, and frankly, as much as I admire them, because they do play so much new stuff all the time, groups like Kronos and BR may never develop the chops  in the classics that classical specialists like the Takacs or others will. Nothing to apologize for — that’s not why you go to hear them.

I should add that I may be a minority voice here. The audience was younger (good!) than the usual FOCM crowd, and it bestowed the standard Portland standing O, rewarding the band’s enthusiasm and courage, I imagine. And afterwards, I encountered a giddy Mattie Kaiser, founder of Classical Revolution PDX, who, when I asked her reaction to the show, offered for the record, and I quote: “OMGOMGOMGOMFG!!!!”

“So you liked ’em?” I asked.

“I want to BE them!” she replied.

So I don’t think we can evaluate this concert, or Third Angle’s for that matter, purely on musical grounds. That runs the risk of making a fetish of perfection in performance, sometimes at the expense of the freshness of the repertoire, the example set for younger musicians, or the sustainability of the art form, which needs new music and young players tackling the old music to keep it alive.

People go to concerts for lots of reasons, and hearing a slightly, or even substantially better performance of a piece you’ve heard a dozen times before may be one of them, but it’s not the only one. Experiencing new sounds, even if they ultimately don’t reach transcendence as a guaranteed classic will, offers its own thrill, and I felt that a few times at these concerts. I’d still rather experience that than a better performance of stale repertoire. I’m not talking about the Takacs, of course — that truly was transcendent, the kind of night you never forget. This wasn’t that kind of performance, but it was worth experiencing anyway.

Over to  you!

JM: We are essentially in agreement, my prolix friend. The pieces in the first half achieved three different levels of the crucial new-music goal of making me want to hear them again. Seven Steps ranged, in its clearly defined steps, from motoric to free and affecting, in keeping with the program and resonating with the Glass suite that followed. With loads of string tricks over its often churning rhythms, it endeared me to the group — it dispelled any notion that they’re banking on hipness, and suggested that they’re actually string nerds who happen to work very well together. I want to give it another listen at least, to get more of a sense of how they put it together.

I approached the Glass suite as I usually do his music, without enthusiasm but impressed in the end by how he has turned what was originally an affectless sort of composition into something worthy of accompanying, in this case, emotionally weighty cinematic material. And frankly, I give Glass credit for constantly using the do-de-do-de-do-de pattern over a minor third for decades without its grating on my nerves 100 percent of the time. The suite made me want to see the film, in part to hear the music in context, but I wouldn’t bother to listen to it again on its own.

Jacobsen’s Sheriff’s Leid, Sheriff’s Freudewas charming and clever. It opened with a passable imitation of late 19th-century Eastern European Romanticism and deftly transitioned into bluegrassy fun, with a decidedly un-conservatory-trained vocal turn by Jacobsen. Unbuttoned and quirky, it seemed appropriate for Portland (or Brooklyn — take your pick). I wouldn’t go out of my way to hear it again, but I wouldn’t object to encountering it on another Brooklyn Rider program.

Then the Beethoven. I have mixed feelings. When I heard that this was the first Beethoven quartet they tried—because they “wanted to go for the best”—I thought, man, the nerve of kids these days. And it’s true that, even allowing for an off night, it was unpolished: in the central movement, especially, their ensemble came in and out of focus, tempos slumped, pizzicati twanged and phrasing was ragged. The tempo marking is Andante; they were walking, but who knew where?

That said, I had to admire their chutzpah for playing it in front of an audience among which many have heard it played by the Emerson, Takács and other great quartets. Standards of quartet playing are stratospherically high these days — read David Blum’s conversations with the Guarneri in The Art of Quartet Playing if you want to get a sense of the minutiae that go into preparing such a piece — and technical perfection is indeed to some extent a fetish.

But I also believe very strongly that a lack of that kind of that kind of ability should not put great music off-limits. To borrow from Evelyn Beatrice Hall channeling Voltaire, I may detest the way you play a Beethoven quartet, but I will defend to the death your right to play it. So in answer to your question “why bother?”, I’d answer that if Brooklyn Rider is trying to make a case for a continuum between the classic and the new, more power to them. Long-dead Beethoven is more alive to me than most living composers. He elates me and makes me cry; it’s like he really gets me, you know? If four young guys from Brooklyn show me that they feel the same way, I feel as though a crucial purpose of musical performance has been fulfilled.

Finally, I wasn’t expecting a link between Brooklyn Rider’s show and the Portland Youth Philharmonic chamber music concert the next day, but there it was: the encore was from their work with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road ensemble, in which they collaborated with Kayhan Kalhor; Bobak Salehi, one of the PYP’s guests Sunday afternoon, studied with Kayhan Kalhor. Plate of shrimp.

BC: I’ll have more to say about PYP this weekend. I’ll close here by saying that even though their Beethoven sounded a bit scruffy to me, I enjoyed most of the concert, I commend Friends of Chamber Music for bringing them here, and I really admire Brooklyn Rider. They’re one of the most promising and engaging bands in this burgeoning indie classical world, and I’m really looking forward to what they do next. Thanks so much for engaging in this conversation with me. It’s definitely helped enrich my appreciation of the quartet and the concert. In your reviews and in our occasional chats, you always make me give deeper consideration to the music that’s played around town, and I’m glad we could share a little of that dialogue with OAW readers this time.

You can see Brooklyn Rider perform a set at National Public Radio here. Here’s an excerpt.

9 Responses.

  1. Molly Gloss says:

    I missed the concert because of a bad cold, and read this to learn what I missed out on. I learned a lot–not just what I missed, but a great deal about the state of classical music and its audiences. The format works very well. More!

    • Barry Johnson says:

      Thanks, Molly. It’s actually a way to trick writers into thinking they aren’t really writing, when actually, they are!

  2. I was not able to attend the concert, but I wanted to put defend the quartet’s rough performance of the Beethoven Op. 131. It, I believe, is the most difficult of the Beethoven quartets, and it has led many an august ensemble down a thorny path with its ensemble challenges, difficult keys, and its sheer size (and non-stop elided movements). I admire ensembles that endeavor to ply more than two centuries worth of repertoire, but it’s dangerous to do so, with the increasing fragmentation of the chamber music landscape. There are quartets like the Calder Quartet tend to stick mostly to 20/21st century rep, then you’ve got groups that play the HIP school, with gut strings, period setup and all that. There are still the groups that play the meat of the classic repertoire (Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Shostakovich, etc.), but they tend to be ‘old school’ groups. The exception is the Juilliard Quartet, which has consistently championed new works (works of Babbit and Carter, and many others), with their credo “play new works as if they were established masterpieces, and established masterpieces as if they were new.” The young Chiara Quartet is a group that is much in the vein of the Juilliard, with lots of commissioned works played alongside the preexisting repertoire with equal dedication. Quite a tangent, I know, but thought the subject could be bantered about a bit more.

  3. Why Bother?

    Because the more we play this music, the more it is alive. The more it guarantees that someone – who might not have ever heard Op. 131 before – might fall in love with it.

    And maybe one day they’ll try to tackle it themselves. (god help em!)

    I throughly enjoyed the Beethoven. Yes, it wasn’t as polished as others have played it, but you’ve been to those performances already. What I appreciated is that nothing was predictable. I felt like they were making it up, which could easily offend some ears, but it kept me on the edge of my seat throughout the entire performances. Too often we are afraid to take risks in our playing, and these guys proved to me that you can take risks (with your programming AND interpretation) – thus my “I want to BE them” comment. To take a great piece, and make it your own, fully polished or no, that is artistry. And we should celebrate that, or it will become stagnant and die out quicker that you can say “grosse fugue”.

    • Barry Johnson says:

      I think that’s right, too, Mattie. I don’t think there’s a “right” way in any case, the perfect interpretation. And I expect Brooklyn Rider’s version will grow and change with time, though maybe it will never have the freshness of THIS time.

  4. Eric Allen says:

    I was sitting next to Brett, and enjoyed the performance, but that’s as far as I’ll go.
    They performed well, with flashes of brilliance (they TORE into that encore), and the Kol Nidre was lovely and way too short (I love very long form, slowly changing music), but that’s it.

    Nothing transcendent. I want music to transport me-and while they were able to get off the ground, they didn’t get much further, and it wasn’t consistent. This may have something to do with their relative youth and the difficulty of the music.

    Only time will tell. One thing is clear right now-they’re willing to stretch themselves onstage, which takes confidence and panache. And if you’re willing to stretch, you’re going to grow, and this bodes well for their future, and for our ears!

    (In the interest of full disclosure, I have shared the stage with Brett a few times-we both partake of the Lewis and Clark gamelan…)

  5. Jeff Winslow says:

    I heard the concert much as Brett and James did, though I don’t care for Glass on any night and I thought the Zorn made a perfect lead-in for the very first notes of the Beethoven, rather than connecting later. That was indeed brilliant programming.

    One point where I substantially disagree is on the quality of the op. 131. At the risk of showing my ignorance – I am a mere composer / pianist, not a string player, and I haven’t heard this quartet for years – I have to wonder if some of these perceptions come from conditioning by years of listening to quartets whose precision outweighs their passion. Frankly the only outstanding misstep I heard was the strange grunt from the cello which stood in for the opening group of the Presto – his motions weren’t quite up to his ambitions. The twangy pizzicato later was shocking, I admit, but on reflection it perfectly expressed the rude, manic Beethoven on display in this movement (when he’s not humming that folk tune, oh, so innocently, while eyeing us for our reactions).

    In summary, I loved the evening, even with the Glass – far more than I have the last few times Kronos has been in town. And I am a die-hard West coaster, born and bred.

  6. Jeff, I think you’re right that there’s a real danger in hearing near “perfect” interpretations all the time, courtesy CMNW and FOCM. It’s a good problem to have! It’s kind of funny that for once, I’m in the unaccustomed position of being the crusty nitpicker, when I’ve spent years urging chance taking and prioritizing innovation in programming above pursuing perfection in interpretation of a narrow range of same-old same-old, not that there necessarily has to be a conflict there.

    I’m perfectly happy to hear less than perfect interpretations, like at some Classical Revolution shows, if there’s some compensatory freshness from the nature of the venue or the enthusiasm of the performers or some unexpected but intriguing discovery there. In fact, I’d go for that every time over hearing another immaculate run through of an overly familiar warhorse.

    I guess in this case, I found BR’s enthusiasm in the new pieces much more compelling than their understandable tentativeness in parts of the Beethoven and so it just wound up seeming like an anticlimactic diminution of the rest rather than a complement.

    However, the problem wasn’t precision over passion. I make that complaint myself about certain groups *cough* Emerson *cough* and Mattie has said that their bloodless perfectionism is one thing that encouraged her to join the Revolution in the first place. But that’s really the miracle of the Takacs and a very few other groups: they are somehow able to throw themselves into something like Beethoven with a ferocity and passion that leaves them sweating and the audience gasping for breath — even though they’ve played it dozens of times and will be playing it a dozen more on the same tour. I have no idea how they can keep it fresh like that but it is spine-tingling to experience. If you ever get a chance to hear them, don’t miss it, and sit as close as you can to the action.

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