Brooklyn Rider returns to Lawrence

On Friday, Oct. 4, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider came to Memorial Chapel as Lawrence’s first guests in the 2019-2020 Performing Arts Series. The group includes Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola and Michael Nicolas on cello. Their performance “Healing Modes” was based on the healing quality of music. The first half of the show was comprised of pieces that were specifically commissioned for the quartet within the last two years. The quartet asked composers to put what they thought was healing into their music, whether it was a healing moment or something that was in need of healing, personal or societal. All five composers who responded to the prompt implemented it into their compositions in very different ways, which made this half of the show engaging in a multitude of ways. After the intermission, the quartet continued with a more classical take on healing with Beethoven’s “Quartet No.15 in A minor, Op. 132.”

The opening piece, “Schisma,” by Caroline Shaw opened with a vibrant use of plucking between all of the musicians. The tone slowly moved to a more chilling sound, which then resolved itself into a beautifully peaceful melody. Just from the first piece, the professional skill of each of the players apparent. Every note was perfectly in sync; they played as if they were one singular unit. This was visible near the end of “Schism” when they all sustained different high pitches in harmony. The strings together sounded like one musician. Then the song ended as it started: with more plucking. Shaw wrote this specific piece about the Syrian refugee crisis. The Greek word “schisma” refers to the Greek islands where refugees are currently seeking safety from the terrors of war.

In the second piece, “Kanto Kechua #2,” composed by Gabriela Lena Frank, there was a chaotic beginning, reflecting what sounded like a falling calamity in a duet from Gandelsman and Jacobsen. This piece was Frank’s response to receiving a diagnosis of an autoimmune disease that could take her life. During this period of her life, she went through a creative explosion, writing chamber music, poetry, a fantasy novel about her ancestors and crafting like no other. “Kanto Kechua” means “Quechua Song.” Quechua is the language of her native Peruvian ancestors.

“i am my own achilles’ heel” by Pulitzer Prize winner Du Yun was Brooklyn Rider’s third contemporary piece of the performance. The inspiration for this piece came from the condition of Alice in Wonderland syndrome. Quoting the quartet, this is a “weird and wonderful sound environment” for them to explore. Alice in Wonderland syndrome warps reality for those it affects, and this warping could be found in the composition. The piece started out with very stark lines, followed by what sounded like creaking wood or the static that plays out in one’s head. An impressive duet between violin and cello was played, with some extremely high notes which gave it an eerie quality. As they played, it felt as though one was slowly falling down an endless hole, but peacefully. Then suddenly everything became disastrous and out of control. The whole piece felt like a nightmare/daydream, swirling the listeners as they went on the journey.  

The fourth piece, entitled “borderlands…,” by Mantana Roberts was composed about the U.S.-Mexico border crisis. Roberts tackled what she thought borders meant, for she had no sense of where borders lie in this battle. The piece began with speaking. As more voices were added, the voices began to blur, becoming lost in the sound. Then began instance, tyrannical lines accompanied by pressured rubbing on the cello strings. The more the piece developed, the more it felt like a dialogue or soundtrack to the border experience.

The last commissioned piece, “Zeher (Poison)” by Reena Esmail closed the first half of the show. Esmail wrote this piece while dealing with an intense throat infection that seemed to have no end.

The second half of the performance showcased the more traditional side of the quartet. They played Beethoven’s “Quartet No.15 in A minor, Op. 132” beautifully, maybe even showing up their first five pieces with their insane technical skills. The next show in the 2019-2020 season will be the Lawrence University Studio Orchestra Concert, which is also part of the jazz series, on Friday, Nov. 8, at 7:30 p.m. in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel.