Well-Tuned, Adventurous

Brooklyn Rider is a daring, compelling, and significant string quartet that is helping to redefine the 300-year-old medium

The string quartet Brooklyn Rider performed back-to-back hour-long concerts on Saturday, just about halfway through this summer’s Bridgehampton Chamber Music Festival. One was, as usual, at the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, at 6 p.m., and, in a new partnership for the festival, the other was at 9 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill.

Kudos to the festival for initiating this new twist in programming, which allows concertgoers to fit concert-going into other plans. I went to the earlier one, although I was sorry that other commitments didn’t allow me to try the new venue. If the second performance was anything like the first, there were two very happy and enriched audiences.

Brooklyn Rider is a daring, compelling, and significant string quartet that is helping to redefine the 300-year-old medium and ensure its success in the 21st century.

One might first notice the players’ untypical concert attire. Among the four men, there were no ties, one jacket, one vest, rust-colored pants, and a pink shirt — you get the idea. Their dress may vary from concert to concert and from photo to photo, but Johnny Gandlesman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola, and Eric Jacobsen on cello, individual as they may have looked, melded their instruments and musicality into one incredibly exciting, well-tuned, and well-tempered ensemble.

The quartet’s name is a play on “Der Blaue Reiter,”  a group of visionary artists in the early 1900s named for a Kandinsky painting. The concert opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in G Minor (Op. 74, No. 3), which is known as, yes, “therider quartet” because of its galloping motives and hunting horn-call figures in the first and last movements. These, combined with Haydn’s irrepressible sense of humor, were brought out in precise and gripping playing.

The gem, though, was the second movement, Largo Assai, with perfect, delicate balance and long, sustained, exquisite phrases. The audience responded to the Haydn quartet with bravos and whistles.

The rest of the program consisted of works written in the last year, and this is where the Brooklyn Rider is really making its mark. “Bradbury Studies” by Gabriel Kahane was heard in its world premiere. Its creative inspiration is the Bradbury Building in Los Angeles, the site of many films, television series, and literary works.

It is an extended one-movement work that fully exploits the string instruments and contemporary techniques — pizzicato, glissandos, jazzy rhythms, an otherworldly, ghostly voice high on the cello, frenzied double-stops, and a technique called col legno, literally “with wood,” which is striking the string with the stick of the bow. The result seems far beyond what four instruments can do.

I think the piece is a significant addition to the contemporary repertoire. The composer took his own pop song and “put it through his composerly lens.” Although the program notes say the “original song is slowly revealed over the course of the work,” the song didn’t become apparent to me on first hearing.

In the next piece, “Garden” from “Qi” by Evan Ziporyn, we heard a very different timbre: a straight-tone, crystalline string sound that did indeed suggest repose with nature and the flow of the elusive life force.

The group has started a commissioning project called the Brooklyn Rider Almanac, and the evening closed with three shorter works from it. Since the players wanted to find fresh approaches to quartet writing, they sought “composers who come mostly from the other side of the classical fence; the worlds of jazz, rock, and folk.”

“Five-Leggeds Cat” by Gonzalo Grau was inspired by the jazz and fusion pianist Chick Corea, and had a delightfully odd five-eight rhythm, Venezuelan influences, and, as if the players aren’t busy enough, foot tapping as well. “Show Me” by Aoife O’Donovan was a somewhat more traditional, unabashedly melodic fiddle tune.

Rubin Kodheli’s “Necessary Henry” was cleverly named after the composer and saxophonist Henry Threadgill and his tune “Necessary Illusion.” It was a marvelous culmination to a concert that was a high point of the festival.

In past seasons, the festival has done one or two concerts that were called “Offbeat,” and Brooklyn Rider was among the performers. Contemporary music seemed to have a much smaller following than traditional classical. I don’t know if it is a coincidence or what other factors may be involved, but that moniker has been dropped, and the audience for Brooklyn Rider this time was nearly as large as those for its other programs.

That is a good thing, because the programming was rather adventuresome, and showed us the new, vibrant life that is in the chamber music world, played excitingly in the hands of gifted and remarkable musicians.

The festival continues through Aug. 24. More information is at bcmf.org, 537-6368.