Nov. 23 2016 11:54 AM

Brooklyn Rider brings wide-ranging musical vision to MSU

Adventurous string quartet Brooklyn Rider comes to MSU next week for a two-day residency, including a Dec. 1 concert at Fairchild Theatre.
Photo by Erin Baiano

They’ve played jazz festivals, Japanese temples and Joe’s Pub in New York — and that’s just the “j’s.” They plumb the thorniest thickets of Beethoven and the Björkiest beatitudes of Björk.

Brooklyn Rider styles itself as a string quartet for the 21st century. Entire forests would have to die to keep them in enough sheet music to cover their world-spanning repertoire, so they play from iPads plugged into a limitless world of music.

“You can become anything in a string quartet, and we love that chameleon-like ability,” said violist Nicholas Cords.

The internationally acclaimed, up-for-anything quartet makes its first appearance in Mid-Michigan next week with a two-day residency at Michigan State University’s College of Music that culminates in a Dec. 1 performance at Fairchild Theatre.

The most conspicuous member of the quartet is first violinist Johnny Gandelsman, a tousled, red-haired live wire with mad skills, zero pretension and off-the-charts charisma.

The quartet comes to MSU thanks in part to its local connection with Gandelsman, son of MSU viola professor Yuri Gandelsman. In January 2015, Johnny Gandelsman treated Lansing audiences to a joyful, mesmerizing marathon performance of all the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin.

But watch out for Cords. He may look like a brainy Princeton instructor — and he is one — but he’s also a dancer at heart. A full-color caricature of Brooklyn Rider in a recent New Yorker magazine depicted Cords thrusting his instrument nearly straight up, gazing at the Andromeda Galaxy, hulahooping his body with so much centrifugal force his polka-dot tie is hurled into the perpendicular.

Cords said the quartet came together to satisfy a mutual passion to honor the string quartet’s rich history while plugging it into the welter of music swirling through the modern world.

“We’re fanatical about the history of string quartet playing and recordings,” Cords said. “We share a love of pre-World War II recordings. But the other thing that really ignited us was new stuff, all the things a string quartet can be that might not have been previously imagined.”

Gandelsman, Cords, violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Michael Necolas have commissioned and performed dozens of new quartets and worked with a crazy array of collaborators, from Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor to American banjo master Béla Fleck to folk singer Suzanne Vega.

On the its latest disc, “So Many Things,” the quartet teamed with opera singer and cabaret diva Anne Sofie von Otter to dive into pop and rock compositions from the likes of Björk, Elvis Costello, Nico Muhly and Rufus Wainwright. Next up are new projects with jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman and Irish fiddler Martin Hayes.

Every new venture is fraught with peril, but that’s the way Cords likes it.

“I’m filled with doubt in just about every collaboration we have, but if you build enough time for the trust and the music to jell, you can get to very good results,” Cords said.

The string quartet may seem like a foursided, if not downright square, set-up, but the form has taken a fantastic ride since its drawing room origins. The supple interplay of roles and exchange of ideas among four distinct voices has proven itself over and over as a nearly inexhaustible vehicle for human expression.

Cords credited the father of the modern string quartet, Franz Joseph Haydn, with the quartet’s “democratization.”

“The second violin might play a bass line, the cello can play the melody — it never settles into a hierarchy,” he said.

The format not only survived but thrived in the 20th century, as composers like Béla Bartók and Dmitri Shostakovich used the string quartet to delve into experimental sounds and probe intimate, personal emotions.

All the music on the quartet’s Dec. 1 program is “intense and compact and changes on a dime,” Cords said.

There are two ostensibly traditional works on the program, but they’re not just there as a nod to tradition or variety. They speak directly to one another in the Brooklyn Rider spirit of dialogue between times and places.

Czech composer Leo Janácek’s emotionally charged String Quartet No. 1, aka “The Kreutzer Sonata,” is named after a controversial novella by Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, in which a jealous husband is driven to murder by the music of Beethoven. As if to test this lurid idea, the quartet is pairing the Janácek with String Quartet No. 11 by Beethoven himself.

The Beethoven quartet was, and still is, an experimental work, with sudden silences, slippery meters and sudden change-ups that suit Brooklyn Rider’s volatile chemistry to a T.

Also on the bill is “BTT,” composed by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen. The atmospheric, intense homage to New York’s downtown music scene features bits of Velvet Underground, the Ramones and experimental gurus like John Cage, Meredith Monk and John Zorn.

The concert begins with String Quartet No. 3 by Philip Glass, which also has a violent literary connection — it’s based on Glass’s score for a 1985 film about Japanese writer and political revolutionary Yukio Mishima.

Brooklyn Rider has recorded all of Glass’ quartets and all of Beethoven’s, working closely with the living person of the former composer and the spirit of the latter.

Cords said the older music “comes to life in a different way with newer works around it,” but he was quick to add that the turbulent Janácek and Beethoven works on Thursday’s slate don’t need much punching up.

“They’re so visceral, ahead of their time when they were written, and could have been written today,” Cords said.

After the MSU date, the quartet will tour the U.S. and Europe with some of the same music they’ll play at MSU, including the Glass and Jacobsen pieces. On most tour stops, they’ll share space on stage with two dancers — Chicago choreographer Brian Brooks and Wendy Whelan, former prima ballerina of the New York City Ballet.

Members of Brooklyn Rider have friends and family all around the world, but it’s a safe bet there will be an extra special hang after Thursday’s concert. Soaking up the expansive hospitality of the Gandelsmans is “one of the many reasons we’re looking forward to coming,” Cords said.

While at MSU, the quartet will hold master classes, coach student chamber groups, and play and critique new music by student composers. They will also take part in a panel discussion on arts entrepreneurship.

“It’s always much nicer than just going and playing a concert,” Cords said. “You get to know people, you have a more real experience and it makes playing the concert more memorable.”

Brooklyn Rider

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1
$20/$18 seniors/$10 students
Fairchild Theatre
542 Auditorium Road, East Lansing
(517) 353-5340, music.msu.edu