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Brooklyn Rider: String quartet’s breadth inspires, engages audience

One of the most interesting musical performances in many years to be heard in Northampton was presented last Sunday by Brooklyn Rider. The concert, sponsored by Music in Deerfield, took place at Sweeney Concert Hall on the Smith College campus.

The string quartet’s name recalls the early 20th-century German collective, Der Blau Reiter (the Blue Rider), and inspires them, like their German model, to encourage other forms of art than music, and to commission new works for their own performances. The players of the three upper instruments played standing (except for a brief section of Vijay Iyer’s suite, where they sat in order to stamp their feet while playing). When violinists and viola players stand their sound carries quite differently from that of seated performers, and as they move around they express another dimension of the music’s power.

Every piece on the program was written by a young composer — the oldest was Iyer, who was 41 at the time of his composition. The program began with the 20-year old Mendelssohn’s first quartet, composed less than two years after the death of Beethoven, whose profound late quartets set a standard that no successor has been able to emulate.

The young Mendelssohn knew this, yet he found his own passionate voice in this work, in which the second movement, a “canzonetta” (“a little song”) was exceptionally beautiful and was played with great delicacy and feeling. The jump from the music of 1829 to a work composed within the last two years was made easy by the warm personalities of the players (each of whom spoke before a piece in the program) and, above all, by the inclusive energy of Ljova Zhurbin’s “Culai,” which he composed in honor of and inspired by the Romanian performer of Gypsy music, Nicolae Neascu (the Culai of the title), who died in 2002. The four movements were composed as a journey through life, ending with a solemn memorial tribute to Culai himself.

Vijay Iyer’s “Dig the Say” again was inclusive — the audience was fully included in the music: in a way we should have been dancing to the music and not sitting motionless in our seats. Appropriately, Iyer’s music was premiered only a week earlier before an audience of school children, who would have appreciated its joyful rhythms and warm invitation to pure enjoyment, both physical and intellectual.

After the interval the quartet performed Stravinsky’s “Three Pieces for String Quartet,” composed in 1914, when Stravinsky was 32 and Europe was entering World War I. The work is austere and profound. Even the movement which Stravinsky called “Excentrique” — inspired by the eccentric movements of a clown whom the composer had watched in London — still kept to this principle, and the players presented the work perfectly.

Stravinsky’s work was followed by the second of Bartok’s six string quartets, completed in 1917, when the carnage of the war was visible to all. Indeed, those in the audience who had endured the horrors of World War II could not fail to be moved by the playing of compositions written during World War I on Armistice Day, Nov. 11 . Bartok’s music is challenging still after 95 years, disturbing yet satisfying. This quartet made particular demands on the cello, which had to provide, without rest, the solid foundation for the intricate music of the upper strings.

The concert ended with Roma, Gypsy-inspired music that restored the joy of life after the profound solemnity of Stravinsky and Bartok. The performers deserved the enthusiastic applause of an audience that they had so warmly included in their music.

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