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'Future of chamber music' departs from norm, but not from tradition

The Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts played host to a series of firsts Saturday night as string quartet Brooklyn Rider took to the stage in the Martinos Auditorium.

Saturday's performance was the New England premiere of a new work by the group — which has garnered glowing reviews from classical and alternative music critics, including Strings magazine and National Public Radio — as well as the first performance by a string quartet in Martinos Auditorium.

FirstWorks — an organization dedicated to bringing "different vantage points" to the arts, according to Executive Artistic Director Kathleen Pletcher P'12.5 — staged the performance,

In an October 2010 article in Strings magazine, Greg Cahill called Brooklyn Rider "the future of chamber music." NPR recognized the group in its semi-annual list Best Music of the Year So Far and called Brooklyn Rider "not your grandfather's string quartet."

At some moments on Saturday's performance, the group's sound reminded the audience acutely of what they were hearing — friction and vibrating strings making the air move. Other times, it was hard to imagine there was not a flute, horn or drum accompanying them. But each piece was performed perfectly, complemented by the impeccable acoustics of the auditorium.

Three of the members of the group played standing up, which allowed them greater expression in their movements. With each swell of the music or movement of the bow, they jerked not just their arms but their whole bodies.

Many members of the audience, which included some students but was mostly comprised of older members of the community, were swaying to the music by the end.

The group takes its rock-and-roll vibe a step further in "Seven Steps," a new work featured Saturday. The piece was a collaborative effort among the entire group and, since a large portion of it is improvised, Saturday's performance was in many ways a completely new work, viola player Nicholas Card said.

"Seven Steps," loosely inspired by Beethoven's more experimental late period, began with violinist Colin Jacobsen tapping at his strings with the whole bow. Then Eric Jacobsen — Colin's brother — started up a jazzy beat on his cello that sounded more like a tango than Beethoven.

"Why shouldn't a string quartet endeavor to write its own music together?" Card asked rhetorically.  But, in fact, this is rarely done in the world of classical music, he said.

There was not such a clear line between composer and performer a century ago, Card said.

Groups composing their own music "has simply not been part of the tradition" in the 20th century, he said. "There's a view that a composer is a composer and a performer is a performer." So his group, in mixing things up, is in fact returning to the style of the 18th century.

The same goes for the improvisation in their pieces. There is a "spirit of improvisation" in a lot of composers' works, especially those of Beethoven, that a lot of people have forgotten, Colin Jacobsen said.

The members of Brooklyn Rider have been playing chamber music together for 15 years — at school, in a number of small and large groups and as members of the Silk Road Ensemble, an artists' collective organized by Yo-Yo Ma.

The quartet is in Providence for a five-day artists' residency as part of FirstWorks' Fall Festival, which takes place in venues all over the city.

On Sunday, they led a workshop with several performance groups at Brown and held an "Educate Your Ear" performance targeted at an audience ranging in age from two to 90. During the week, they will visit three Providence public schools before leaving Thursday.

This is part of a new FirstWorks initiative starting this year, Pletcher said. "Every artist we're presenting, we're connecting with the audience in some way."

As a part of this initiative, Saturday's concert was preceded by a performance from local youth dance troupe Jump! Dance Company. Accompanied by David Bowie's "I'm Afraid of Americans" and a piece by Phillip Glass recorded by Brooklyn Rider, the troupe filled the Granoff Center's hallways and landings as the audience crowded in to watch.

Pletcher called this community outreach "build-out" — it starts with a new performance and becomes a community event. "That's what makes it a festival, not just a concert," she said.


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