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Montpellier, France
Writer, actor, artist, teacher, exploring the world and its levels in fiction, poetry, memoir, photography, fine arts.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Mind-bending "Brooklyn Rider" at Town Hall (music review)

Pina Bausch - The Rite of Spring
Occasionally a cultural experience emerges indelibly as a peak life event. By grace or luck, I made it to Pina Bausch's 1984 Rite of Spring at Brooklyn Academy of Music after reading a review in the New York Times while living in Manhattan in the early 80's. That electrifying performance opened my eyes to hitherto unimagined dimensions, as though from a balcony-seat view of the sun, a most elemental force of nature teeming with energy and creativity. I bounded out of that venue a changed man.

Joshua Roman
I no longer live in New York, and can't depend on cultural events around every corner to kindle flames in my soul. Thankfully, on Sunday night, January 29, despite my low spirits, I decided to join my partner Warren at Town Hall for a concert by Brooklyn Rider, a string ensemble invited to Seattle by cellist Joshua Roman as part of his TownMusic Series.

O...M...G. This foursome, members of Yo Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, hooked me in the first startling seconds of their new composition, the mind-altering Seven Steps, a journey through texture, dissonance, harmony, fluidity of sound and movement unlike any piece of music I have heard. Riveting is too weak a word. Music beamed in to Earth via radio from another inhabited world somewhere in the galaxy (as could happen any time) would possibly recreate my first exposure to Seven Steps. By its conclusion I felt certain I was in for an unforgettable evening. 

Philip Glass' Suite from the film Bent followed, and fulfilled the prophecy of the first. Brooklyn Rider has made Glass' music a specialty, evidenced by their disc Brooklyn Rider Plays Philip Glass. The Bent suite, thrillingly enlivened by the mastery and cohesion of this talented team, further soothed my spirit and opened my mind. These dramatic, contrasting short pieces throb with currents of life and transformation, despair and apotheosis. 

Glass, and the Brooklyn Riders, take familiar musical cadences, chord progressions, rhythms, and bend them through a prism, stretching out, slowing down, remolding, reinventing our experience of melody and form. The organs of sense must bend to encompass such aesthetic alchemy; in its thrall one feels almost a physical metamorphosis of the self.

Brooklyn Rider: Johnny Gandelsman, Eric Jacobsen,
Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Cords
Photo credit: Sarah Small
It takes special chemistry among performers to achieve this. Brothers Colin and Eric Jacobsen on violin and cello, Johnny Gandelsman and Nicholas Cords on violin and viola, almost dance to the music they draw from their 16 strings. I’ve never seen a string quartet perform on its feet before (Eric Jacobsen sits on a raised platform to be at eye level with his colleagues), nor infuse its playing with such visual movement and appeal.

This band of musical brothers goes beyond chemistry into physics, with quantum connections nowhere more evident than in the last work before intermission, company member Colin Jacobsen's amusing, exhilarating Sheriff's Leid, Sheriff's Freude, a weirdly cartoonish fusion of classical, bluegrass, and the-yet-to-be-labeled. 
Photo credit: Sarah Small 
At this point in the program parallel universes began to shimmer in the staid concert hall. Wandering through fun-house mirrors of convention, hip-shooting at expectations, Sheriff astonishes with its originality, culminating in Colin Jacobsen's utterly unexpected, laugh-out-loud funny vocal solo near the end, and the trippy Looney-Toons climax. Space-time warps near creations of this magnitude. Art so close to the edge of the known universe does not lightly touch an audience. Like certain drug-induced or psychic experiences, there is no going back: you will never see or hear the world quite as before.

This remarkable first half laid the groundwork for the Beethoven String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, which followed John Zorn's solemn Kol Nidre at the top of the second set. Artists take liberties with a musical score by the mere act of lifting it from the page to the stage; the extreme technical challenges of Beethoven's late magnum opus demand new insight and intuition from every group that takes it on. I was aquiver to hear Brooklyn Rider’s approach, and was not disappointed, or fully prepared for what followed.

Brooklyn Rider infused the quartet's first movement with lusciously fluid tonalities and shapes; again images of the sun come to mind, as seen through a powerful telescope: impossibly huge and distant, but through the power of optics near enough to discern its vast, slow welling of energy and power, explosive force restrained by its own gravity.

The following movements, some seamlessly flowing into one another, others separated out like beats in an unfolding chant, highlighted contrasts of pizzicato and legato, fortissimo clashes and pianissimo reconciliations, quantum waves of multi-layered sound and brittle particle interactions sparking muons of audio delight. While unerringly true to Beethoven’s score, Brooklyn Rider thrusts the German genius to the forefront of 21st century avant-garde. I will never hear this quartet, or possibly any Beethoven quartet, with quite the same ears. My doors of perception have been thrown open, and it's a new world.

By the end of the concert and that Seattle rarity, a third curtain call, my Sunday-night doldrums were dissipated, my heart and spirit refreshed and uplifted. Amazing, the power of music to transform the human condition.

Galaxy core
I suspect that music holds a deeper mystery than we yet fully conceive, in its correlation with elemental forces of nature, the fabric of the universe(s), and the unique role of human life in its discovery and exploration. I have no doubt that sentient beings on other worlds have also discovered its power through whatever organs of sense nature has created in countless permutations across the wide orchestral score of the cosmos. 

I hope, on the day human beings first thrill to the music of an alien race, that cutting-edge composers and artists like Brooklyn Rider will be credited with having prepared us to appreciate it.

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