Brooklyn Rider: Lucid Flight

Is classical music really on the ropes? Living in New York City, it's easy to think that is a myth cooked up in the provinces.

Recently, at a performance of the Metropolitan Opera's fabulous current production of Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann, directed by Bartlett Sher, I experienced Classical Music 2017 up close and personal. In the audience, multicolored sequined jackets and cheetah-print slip-on sneakers mixed with tuxedos. Merrell hiking shoes and Patagonia down jackets crossed with slim-fit outfits from Billy Reid and Hermes bags. Between bravura tenor Vittorio Grigolo in the title role and soprano Erin Morley's absolutely wonderful portrayal of the doll, Olympia (Bravo!!!), it was a performance for the ages. None of the recordings I've heard come close.

But such momentary and very local glories aside, these days classical music needs all the help it can get. Appearing on Billboard's Classical Albums chart of the top 25 sellers can be achieved by selling less than 100 copies a week. And these days even the Met has lots of empty seats. All is not lost, but new ways of developing audiences need to be found. Under general manager Peter Gelb, the Met has hit on the solution of trapping you inside a building for hours, until you cough up $10 for a small bottle of water lest you expire from thirst.

Another idea, in the recording realm, is the much-vaunted crossover album or performer. Two "new" Elvis Presley recordings, If I Can Dream and The Wonder of You, layer original recordings of Elvis singing his hits atop new orchestral arrangements performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and have become big sellers in the UK and US.

A more difficult path is one that many classical players couldn't even consider, let alone spend a career doing: essentially, becoming wide-ranging culture wayfarers, open to influences from many quarters, adopting the fierce DIY 'tude of indie rock bands and the adaptive instincts of jazz quartets, all grounded in the instrumental precision of classically trained musicians. Brooklyn Rider, a string quartet formed in New York City in 2005, mostly performs new classical music but has cast its net far and wide, playing the music of musical personalities as diverse as Elvis Costello, Kate Bush, and Sting. They've proven themselves extraordinarily open to collaboration, most notably with their appearance on Béla Fleck's The Imposter (2013), accompanying the banjoist in his Night Flight Over Water. They've even been reviewed on


While stylistic lines have blurred considerably in recent years, Brooklyn Rider is still reputed to be the only classical-music ensemble ever to play the South by Southwest Music Festival, in Austin, Texas—where I first heard them, in 2010, playing in front of an initially puzzled but ultimately enthusiastic crowd of indie-rock fans. Violinists Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen—who was replaced by Michael Nicolas in 2015—are all graduates of either the Juilliard School of Music or Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, and crossed paths while working in New York's classical music scene.

"The approach to being in a quartet together really took place over many years," violist Cords said as we talked in the Hungry Ghost coffee shop, on Flatbush Avenue in . . . where else? Brooklyn! (It struck me as oddly if perverse that we were talking classical music whilst disco music like Van McCoy's "The Hustle," and Heatwave's "Boogie Nights" was playing in the background.)

"We met each other through other groups. There was a group in New York called the Wild Ginger Philharmonic, which was an orchestra that a friend of ours founded. It was built on this idea of collective experience. The orchestra would go away on retreats and do all kinds of things, and the concerts were outstanding because people really felt plugged in. I was part of that. Colin had been part of that, and Johnny was concertmaster.

"I think very quickly we realized that we were passionate about a lot of the same things: the things that we listened to, the things that we valued in interpretation. One of the things was listening to old recordings, pre–World War II. I have a huge collection of pre-WWII pianists, vocalists, string quartets, string players, and we all found a mutual love of that. They were originally on 78s, but I collect the remastered CD versions because they're easier to catalog, and carry around."

As for the change in membership, often a potentially catastrophic development in a group as small and symbiotic as a string quartet, in this case it was also a parting of the brothers Jacobsen. The split was amicable; Eric Jacobsen left to focus more on conducting.

"Michael [Nicolas] came in about a good year and a half ago. There was a little bit of overlap between Eric and Michael, a passing of the torch, but it's been working out great," Cords said. "Michael is so flexible. We've thrown him into so many projects. We're juggling several at one time, and I rarely see him break a sweat. He's got incredible new-music experience, but he's also a great classical cellist. When we thought about cellists to invite to play with, we were actually having a hard time coming up with a sizable list. All those skills residing in one person is not so easy to find."


According to Cords, the foursome's synergy is as strong as or stronger than ever. The chemistry among the players, flourishing audibly on record and visibly in concert, is the key ingredient of any musical group, from duos to orchestras. It's particularly essential to the success of a string quartet, given that only four musicians must create such a wide variety of textures, harmonies, and rhythms. While I'm sure that Brooklyn Rider is not immune to the squabbles that occur within any musical assemblage (ahhh, Simon and Garfunkel), the friendship and mutual respect that were evident when I talked with two of its members are clearly the foundation of their current success.

"We've played in so many different places—clubs, galleries, in museums as part of a residency, in a 5000-seat hall—all those experiences build a safety net of memory which you can rely on and fall back into," violinist Johnny Gandelsman said over the phone from the parking lot of a Brooklyn Staples, where he was copying press releases for the group. All but cellist Nicolas live in their namesake borough. "Familiarity is never to be discounted. It's great to have that. And now that we are in our second year with Michael, we're building something new.

"We have very high expectations of each other, but at the same time we're not together 100% of the time," Gandelsman continued. "Everyone also does their own thing, which is both good and bad, but the good is, when we get together it feels good, it still feels special. We also have a sense of trust, which helps a lot. We do a lot of things that aren't in our collective comfort zone, or projects where someone might be completely at home with a project but the other ones aren't. So we can try things, and people can lead different projects, and it's fine.

"Finally, we try not to place huge expectations on a first performance, or the first of anything. It would take us a long, long time before we said, 'This is the definitive Brooklyn Rider interpretation' of anything. We're constantly learning and digging and trying to get to know pieces more."

One area in which Brooklyn Rider has always excelled is in the recording studio. All of their records, for labels like Mercury, Nave, and World Village are simply miked for very effective, natural sound. Johnny Gandelsman is the member most interested in the recording process, and several of the quartet's recordings, including their latest, Spontaneous Symbols, have been released on his label, In a Circle. The album was recorded over three months at Oktaven Audio, a studio in Mount Vernon, New York. The sessions were engineered by Oktaven co-owner Ryan Streber, himself a composer, who in recent years has helmed recording projects released by such labels as Bridge, Naxos, New Amsterdam, and Tzadik.

One recent evening, Streber talked with me by cellphone about Brooklyn Rider as he drove along the Taconic Parkway. "Johnny [Gandelsman], in particular, has a lot of experience in studio recording, so he was really involved right from the beginning in terms of getting sound and ideas about miking. But on the whole, I just tried to keep it pretty simple, and just capture what they sounded like in the room as best as I could. The mike setup was straightforward. Most of the sound came from a stereo pair capturing the sound of the group. I was using a pair of clones of Neumann M49s that I built. Same circuit as a '50s M49, but made in-house from modern components because that's the only way I can afford them. They are really natural-sounding main pickups for acoustic ensembles. I also used one of those for the spot mike for viola. Two AEA ribbon mikes on the violins, and then, on cello, was a [Telefunken] U47 clone that I also built.


"On Spontaneous Symbols, we did a pretty average amount of editing," Streber continued. "They like to work in longer chunks, sections, and then kind of doing those in a bunch. Some of the editing got into a little nitty-gritty, but they are so well prepared and so unified as a group [that] a lot of the editing was about trying different things, trying different articulations, getting things really as perfect as possible. There might have been one or two that were a base take with small inserts, but most finished tracks are based on one performance.

"We recorded to Pro Tools HD, 96kHz/24-bit, and my recording chain is pretty minimal: mike preamps straight into the converter. And then, on the back end, in the Pro Tools, I have an analog console and a small amount of outboard gear that things get mixed through. So not totally in the box—there's a little bit of analog stuff happening on the mix side."

One of the salient features of any Brooklyn Rider recording or concert is the quartet's devotion to rhythm. This is particularly apparent in The Brooklyn Rider Almanac (2014), for which composers wrote works inspired by the work of other artists, some of whom, such as James Brown, come from the world of popular music. Is the fact that this string quartet is unafraid of [gulp!] grooves one of the keys to their acceptance by hipsters, and other folks who wouldn't otherwise listen to classical music?

"Groove-based music can be frowned upon in the classical world," said Cords with a straight face. "One of the reasons why is because sometimes in the classical world, when something groove-based happens, it can be terrible because it's an extraction of an idea. I think a real rhythmic energy and feel comes from an internal place, and it takes a long time to develop that as a quartet. And there's so much variety in grooves. And are you the kind of person that's forward in the beat, or are you playing behind it? Are you playing right in the center of the beat? There are so many subtle things, and so, as a result, we ended up playing and recording a lot of different types of groove music."

Still reeling a bit from this discussion of string quartets and groove music, I ask some natural follow-up questions. How does Brooklyn Rider feel about the standard repertoire? Do they get flak from fans unwilling or unable to go along with some of their fairly audacious stylistic adventures? Do concertgoers or record-label people ever say, "Just play Beethoven!"?

Cords smiled and took a breath. "When you think of the great composers in the Western classical tradition, they were always breaking down barriers, inventing forms, really pushing those boundaries—so I don't see what we're doing as actually unique. The best way to kill a tradition is to stagnate and stop pushing.

"You need people who are retro. You need people who are holding the tradition as it is now. And you need people who are looking forward. It's an ecosystem, and I don't place greater or lesser value on any of those parts. I just see what we're doing as being more on the side of pushing forward. We do play standard rep, but the stuff we are most interested in recording is stuff that isn't out there, stuff that we can totally own and share with audiences.

"People are drawn, however, to what we do in standard rep because it feels fresh and new," Cord continues. "In a way, I feel like we're very traditional. We don't get together in a room and scheme about how we're going to give Mozart a facelift—hardly that. One of the choices that we make is that we use a lot less vibrato than a lot of quartets today in standard rep. But that's not to be provocative at all; it's coming from a place of wanting to hear harmonic movement clearly."

"What we do can be enjoyed by most people," Gandelsman said. "We are excited about sharing what we do in whatever venue or album, anywhere, anyway. There are so many new groups, new ensembles out there—the field is definitely changing. I wouldn't say people look at us and say, 'Brooklyn Rider is definitely leading the pack.' We're just part of this new collective of musicians doing things differently."

dalethorn's picture

I sampled several of their albums (surprising to see no other comments here), and find their music to have not only a good variety, but such tasteful playing that I could listen for hours. This is unusual for me - my tastes are very narrow in almost any genre, but well-served here since these guys stay pretty close to the melody (from what I've heard so far), rather than wander into the more far-out experimentation that other groups do with similar music.