Brooklyn Rider quartet offers generic fusion, Iranian star

By Evan Tucker
Monday, March 7, 2011

Brooklyn Rider is a string quartet formed by members of Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, which brings together musicians from Eastern and Western traditions. This quartet, which the Washington Performing Arts Society presented at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue on Saturday night, aspires to a similar fusion. However, they don't seem to know how to make a fusion that sounds like their own. In place of individuality, they pursue vitality at all costs. The greatest cost is to their music, which is enjoyable but generic. Theirs would be "good bad music" in any genre less desperate for relevance than classical music.

The concert began with a piece by Italian composer Giovanni Sollima that program notes assured us was drenched in his native folk traditions. So why did it sound like "Riverdance"? We then heard an excellently played performance of Philip Glass's Japanese-influenced String Quartet No. 3. Brooklyn Rider played it so well that there was no mistaking the agonizing tedium this piece contains.

Brooklyn Rider also performed four pieces that its violinist Colin Jacobsen wrote or arranged to include the legendary Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor. After mere seconds from Kalhor's kamancheh - an Iranian viol - one realized what Brooklyn Rider lacks. The moment Kalhor's bow crossed the strings, the synagogue was transformed from a trendy venue into a musical shrine. Whenever Kalhor was spotlighted, Jacobsen's music changed from ethno-kitsch to profound rumination.

Midway through the concert, Kalhor gave as extraordinary an improvisation as any music lover could wish to hear. All it took was one instrument, one man, and one melody extracted from one chord to uncover thousands of possibilities constructed from simple means.

A musician this brilliant should not have to play second fiddle - or, in this case, second kamancheh. Asking Kayhan Kalhor to play with Brooklyn Rider is like asking W.C. Handy to play with Blues Traveler. Both Brooklyn Rider and Blues Traveler are enjoyable groups that popularize great musical traditions. One immediately hears how distant their music is from greatness, however, when confronted with the real thing.

Tucker is a freelance writer.

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