Charles Ives, iconoclastic American composer responsible for more 20th-century musical trends and experiments than most care to admit or recognize, started his musical career leaning strict tonal fugues and counterpoint at the piano from his father. He would have to learn the rules, so the story went, before he could break them. That refrain kept playing in my head throughout much of Wednesday night’s concert from Tanglewood featuring string quartet Brooklyn Rider.
Comprising violinists Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicolas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas, the ensemble can be considered a spiritual child of the Kronos foursome. The group chomps down thorny contemporary classical repertoire while frequently collaborating with artists from other musical genres, crossing boundaries and connecting with all manner of other artistic engineering feats. The show channeled some of their recent project “Healing Modes,” completed last year and recorded in early 2020. It seems ironically appropriate as a theme today, though a missed opportunity not to exclusively dedicate this entire performance to the “Healing Modes.”
We heard two short works from the project: Caroline Shaw’s Schisma and Matana Roberts’ borderlands. These represented the recent project which commissioned five 5 composers for new works for the quartet, and served to stress both Brooklyn Rider’s contemporary music bona fides and their penchant for cutting edge collaborations. The Syrian refugee crisis inspired Schisma, which refers (as the composer puts it) both to a “cleft in the rock” and a place of solace and comfort. It opens with rapid and rapidly shifting arpeggios which, upon listening to more of Shaw’s music seems to constitute a trademark. Here though the frequent jarring shifts evoked aural channel surfing. The score settled on a section of polyrhythmic pizzicati and tapping, which seemed a bit clichéd, but the quartet handled the technical challenges with ease and grace. In particular, moments handed from one instrument to another came across as organic and seamless. A persistent “tic-tic-tic” enters in, more like a drip than a clock, which also proved very effective in context. But then the work abruptly ended, feeling like the intro to a larger work. Perhaps it will be.
Caroline Shaw, singer, multi-instrumentalist and composer, prefers not to be pigeonholed as performer or composer. Likewise, Matana Roberts’s bios frequently list his status as a composer alongside many other titles, the most provocative being “sound experimentalist,” although “mixed media practitioner” makes the list too. Her borderlands, inspired by the crisis at the US-Mexico border, is a graphic score, and it would have been nice to at least see a glimpse of it on the video feed, but instead we were left to imagine what the performers were looking at. What we do know is that she required numerous rounds of dice rolling (although no notes explained whether this was a parameter of a possibly aleatory score, or just a visual statement of…something). In juxtaposing four speaking lines of text with playing, the former was obscured by the latter, since in general the score asked the quartet to attack their poor instruments with excessive zeal. For the duration, no connection among the four players became apparent; perhaps that was intentional.
I am a composer and music director who has worked for years in the realms of new music. In one group, the term “a contemporary piece” began to carry a negative connotation, meaning a work which checked many (too many?) of the boxes of ‘new’ music, but lacked a certain core of substance; something signifying “sound and fury.” Borderlands gave the impression of “a contemporary piece.” Schisma felt close as well, but did manage a certain level of honesty and soulfulness, if not freshness.
In the case of the what followed, the famous Dankgesang from Beethoven’s Op. 132 A Minor quartet, my qualms arose not with Beethoven (though he had not truly written in the Lydian mode as he claimed), but rather with Brooklyn Rider’s interpretation. My viewing partner for this concert, a string player and quartet member, offered a word to describe it which I will not print, not just because I felt it too harsh, but also somewhat imprecise. I thought about it all night and finally realized the appropriate word: dispassionate. The slow parts of the movement shone in muted contrast, like the unnatural hues of an old faded photograph. The tempo of the second subject suffered from incessant fussiness, undermining its inherent fecundity, like a gardener who can’t stop watering his plants. I had a passing but dreadful inkling why. They played the “holy song” sans vibrato as many do, but it held the listener out rather than draw them in. They gave some bounce to the second theme as many do, but it came across like touching up a beloved portrait. This, I thought, is how post-modernism does pre-modernism; when a world without religion attempts to create the illusion of belief, or when the rule-breaking mentality is applied to the rule book itself. What should have been divine became interminable: form without substance, sound without meaning.
The stream closed in a fulsome embrace of sound without meaning, in Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3, Mishima. The group played admirably, having had Mishima in its repertoire for 15 years, but the content of the work is unremarkable. I could substitute a few words of an earlier review for any Glass work and not be caught out. Glass’s soundscapes never reveal anything unpleasant, and often function very well, but one reviewer justly denounced their “self-importance.” Therein lies the rub — not just of Glass but so much modern music — that it often says nothing but demands you listen, offers nothing but demands you ask. Having run in these circles for a while, I was willing to accept these terms for the modern pieces, but drew the line when those sensibilities retroactively infected Beethoven.
N.B: In my past few reviews I have suggested that Tanglewood make the video experience more life-like and emulative of a real concert experience. Unless a freak thunderstorm or two rolled in during filming (which is possible in Lenox), it appears the Beethoven was not even recorded in one take, as the atmospheric conditions outside Studio E shift rapidly, the overall effect coming off like a poorly edited student film. This is the opposite of making the concert experience more real. While arts organizations remain shuttered, all they have to maintain their audience-in-exile is authenticity. They neglect that at their peril.
Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.