The four men of Brooklyn Rider arrived at the WQXR Café on a recent morning feeling groggy and jet-lagged, having returned three days earlier from a tour to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. But it was time to rally. Their set list would feature exuberant pieces inspired by the music of Eastern Europe, ancient Persia and beyond.
Travel -- in a metaphorical sense -- has been an ongoing theme for this genre-bending string quartet, whose members cut their teeth in Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble. The group's sixth and most recent album, “A Walking Fire,” is named after a poem by the 13th-century poet Rumi, and it includes Bartok's String Quartet No. 2 as well as several new pieces. Among them is Culai by Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin, a Russian-born, New York-based composer who has collaborated with the quartet on several occasions. Here is the movement "Love Potion, Expired."
With its rollicking, jagged rhythms, the work is a tribute to Nicolae "Culai" Neacsu, the late violinist and vocalist of the Gypsy string ensemble, Taraf de Haiidouks. It's also consistent with Brooklyn Rider's embrace of non-Western styles.
In an interview on WNYC’s Soundcheck, violinist Colin Jacobsen noted how Debussy was profoundly influenced by the Javanese gamelan music he heard at the Paris International Exposition in 1889. Similarly, Bartok drew on the folk music he heard while traveling the countryside of Hungary and Romania with a tape recorder in the early 1900s. Brooklyn Rider has not only played those composers' works, but also collaborated with artists like the Chinese pipa player Wu Man, the Japanese shakuhachi player Kojiro Umezaki and Kayhan Kalhor, the Iranian master of the kamancheh, or Persian fiddle.
Jacobsen's own Three Miniatures for String Quartet, featured on "A Walking Fire," was inspired by the Islamic art galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which reopened in 2011. The work particularly draws on a miniature painting tradition "in which epic stories of love, heroism and allegories of human folly are played out in tiny portraits of incredible detail and texture." The movement “Majnun’s Moonshine” opens the quartet's café concert and can be heard in the audio above.
To round out their set, the quartet performed Zhurbin’s arrangement of Doina Oltului (“Song of the River Olt”), a traditional Romanian song. With its bent notes, rhythmic bowing and heavy offbeats, the piece seemed to momentarily transform the cafe into a rustic village tavern.
Video: Amy Pearl & Kim Nowacki; Sound: Edward Haber; Text & Production: Brian Wise