By Cristina Schreil
Brooklyn Rider: “Healing Modes”
Herbst Theatre, San Francisco
November 16, 2018
The theme was healing. When the concert program came together a year prior, no one realized just how much the Bay Area would need it. The concert was right before Thanksgiving, as the Camp Fire—the most devastating wildfire in California history—was ripping through Butte County. The fire was nearly 200 miles away, but its presence hung in the air: noxious smoke cloaked San Francisco; many entered Herbst Theatre wearing face masks. One woman gazed at the theater’s ceiling, painted a bright splash of blue, and remarked it was the first sky she’d seen in days.
There seemed no better ensemble to lift the audience from this sense of apocalypse than Brooklyn Rider. The eclectic New York–based string quartet is the ultimate transporter, known for creative programming and chameleon-caliber versatility. Violist Nicholas Cords mentioned partway through the concert that they are all classically trained, but always with “one foot firmly in the music of today.” This concert was proof. The first half comprised new commissioned works. The latter was more conventional repertoire.
Like countless other ensembles, Brooklyn Rider was inspired by Beethoven, whose music served as the cornerstone of the entire project. Specifically, it was one of his late quartets—String Quartet No. 15, Op. 132—and in particular the sublime slow movement at its core. One can’t delve into it without noting the grisly maladies that ensnarled Beethoven as he composed: Despite the movement’s beauty, Beethoven had endured a bowel infection, delaying his progress. The illness kindled deep existential musing.
Cords writes in the program notes that the resulting movement “is not only a celebration of feeling new physical strength, but it is essentially an expression on the renewal of the soul. For Beethoven, the return of his physical health likely ran of secondary importance to a return of his creative powers.” The tether between physical and spiritual healing, via music, is clear.
In an intriguing move, Brooklyn Rider commissioned four composers to respond to this concept of music as panacea: Caroline Shaw, Gabriela Lena Frank, Reena Esmail, and Matana Roberts—four women of different backgrounds and cultural influences.
Works ranged from musings over the composers’ own illnesses to comments on complex societal structures. It was a fine example of how a starting point may be a kernel of a concept, but expounding upon it yields twisting, fascinating paths forward. It made for a multifaceted program that Brooklyn Rider buffed like a gem. Shaw’s work, Schisma, kicked off the concert, nudging the audience into a contemplative, intimate space with lusciously warm hues. The New York–based composer drew upon a line from the Book of Exodus. One line gestures toward a sense of a safe haven, formed in a “cleft” of a rock.
Shaw writes that Beethoven’s movement has a “nest-like” architecture, and her work touches on this without ever quoting it directly; the complex interaction between voices feels finely wrought and layered—a deeply pretty wash. At one point, as cellist Michael Nicolas conjured steady notes that seemed to evoke the passing of time, the other strings summoned fruity bow strokes and slick glissandos. While feeling intimate, the Greek title comments on a big topic: the islands currently sheltering Syrian refugees, and the sweeping, splintering effects of war.
Roberts’ work, borderlands . . . , later on also took inspiration from broader human-rights issues: the US-Mexico border crisis. Her work is in protest of recent “archaic” American immigration policies. It’s “about healing cultural rifts, healing ideas of difference . . .” Roberts wrote. Her scores are pictorial, often involve spoken word, and leave room for improvisation, violinist Colin Jacobsen explained. The piece began unexpectedly, as it crept to life with an intimate tone. At first, it seemed like the players were chatting as if in a rehearsal. But, they’re uttering words, phrases, and dictionary definitions. Gentle synchronized bow strokes escalated with a bold, gritty crescendo, and a crash of pizzicato. Roberts plays with a coarse contemporary palate to create feelings of build-up and release: Players tapped on strings with the wood of their bow, or scraped bow hair along strings; at one point, Jacobsen tapped with four left-hand fingers against the top of his violin body, generating satisfying smacks.
Despite meaty topics, a closeness governed the entire evening. This resonated especially in Frank’s and Esmail’s works, which drew from personal illness. Frank recalled a terrifying medical diagnosis in her early 30s. She painted the creative outpouring—including the melodies that bloomed into this quartet—that it triggered. Kanto Kechua No. 2 had Frank’s trademark influence from Peruvian folk melodies woven throughout a dissonant storm of activity. It felt like pieces stitched together and then chopped apart, with beautiful splashes of color. First violinist Johnny Gandelsman carried a piercing line over what Frank perfectly described as the other strings’ “whirls” to a haunting effect. Brief solos by Cords and Nicolas felt nostalgic and eerie.
Esmail, ruminating on the power of vocal agency, shared that she once developed a throat infection. This caused her to speculate on other times she’d been “rendered voiceless.” Her work built from two Hindustani ragas. The title, Zeher, means “poison.” The enchanting cello part evoked this, Nicolas’ honeyed vibrato fostering succulent lines. This transporting work seemed the strongest link to that inspiring Beethoven movement, played in the second half of the program. Moments in Esmail’s piece evoked a tension and release—like quick chances to expel pain. Like gasps for air when blanketed with smoke.