Call them the children of Kronos. No, not the Greek Titan, who ruled Earth and the heavens, but the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco-based ensemble founded in 1973 that reinvented the string quartet. With an exclusive dedication to contemporary music — from minimalism to salsa — the Kronos created such a hip and flamboyantly costumed image that it was dubbed “classical music’s fab four.”
Today, a healthy batch of young ensembles — string quartets and otherwise — show they are equally committed to 20th- and 21st-century music, as well as to presenting themselves with flair. Over the next week, Capital Region audiences will hear three young quartets, two in concert, one in a multimedia collaboration.
First comes the Flux Quartet, which has made the soundtrack to a 3-D presentation titled “Upending,” which runs Thursday through Saturday at EMPAC. The Jack Quartet will appear on Saturday evening, also at EMPAC, in a program dedicated to music of German composer Helmut Lachenmann. And Sunday afternoon, March 29, the Brooklyn Rider gives a recital in the Union College concert series.
“Hats off to the Kronos. They’ve shown you can do something special as a quartet and enter the public consciousness,” says violinist Colin Jacobsen, 31, of the Brooklyn Rider. Jacobsen, 31, is already a familiar presence to Capital Region audiences. He’s appeared with the Musicians of Marlboro at Union College and twice soloed with the Albany Symphony Orchestra, in the Beethoven Triple Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma and in the world premiere of Kevin Beavers’ violin concerto “Roscoe,” based on the novel by William Kennedy.
The roots of the Brooklyn Rider go deep. Its membership includes Colin’s brother Eric Jacobsen as cellist, while violist Nicholas Cords and Colin were roommates at the Curtis Institute. The group was launched about five years ago, but it was during the past 10 years as members of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble that the members embraced their sense of adventure.
“Touring with Yo-Yo, you’re in sold-out big houses willing to go anywhere with you from the first note,” says Colin Jacobsen. “From those situations, we’ve learned how to build trust with an audience, which he does from the moment he walks on stage.”
Yet it wasn’t being around a superstar that got the Brooklyn Rider’s juices going. It was the Silk Road’s all-encompassing embrace of music from East and West, as well as the vernacular and the refined. “It informed how we view the quartet and the borderless possibilities,” says Jacobsen.
Sunday’s program will be particularly adventuresome, with music by Giovanni Sollima (a 48-year-old Italian), by Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky (an Uzbek composer who has collaborated extensively with Silk Road), by John Cage (late grandfather of the musical avant-garde), by Jacobsen himself.
Lest that lineup seem overwhelming, the centerpiece is one of the most beloved of all chamber works, the Debussy String Quartet. According to Jacobsen, Claude Debussy was on the same search as the Brooklyn Rider is today.
“He was trained in the conservatory, but was constantly rebelling against what he thought was dusty old music,” says Jacobsen. “He wrote his quartet four years after the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, where he was exposed to the music of the world. … In the quartet, he’s willing to stay in one key center or mode and just revel in the sensual beauty and the way the voices are piled on top of each other. It’s really his broad view of where music fits in the world.”
Finding new sounds no longer requires international travel or even a world’s fair. One just needs to turn on any variety of media. Violinist Tom Chiu, 38, founder of the Flux Quartet, says his group has a well-established niche of contemporary music, mostly “iconoclastic figures that followed their own path,” as he puts it. But Chiu still feels obliged to keep up on new trends, wherever they may be found.
“I recently saw the band Vampire Weekend on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ “ he says. “There’s a lot of hype about them, and I went into it with as much open mind as I could. But to me, they’re too youthful. Yet as musicians, we’re not playing music in a vacuum. We have to make some connection with our audience. It’s like socializing at a party and trying to find common ground.”
For the multimedia event at EMPAC, created by the OpenEnded Group, the Flux contributed a recording of the First String Quartet of Morton Feldman, the Buffalo-based composer who died in 1987. Widely embraced after his death at age 61, Feldman’s music is characteristically hushed, slow moving and restrained, but his compositions are sometimes Wagnerian in scale.
The Flux made its name as the first (and only) group to perform Feldman’s Second String Quartet, which runs six hours. It’s a feat that the Kronos never could pull off but the Flux achieved — only once — back in 1999.
Without having to apply such athletic endurance, the Jack Quartet shares a similar devotion to music of the 75-year-old German composer Helmut Lachenmann. They’ve spent an extensive amount of time under Lachenmann’s coaching and performed his works across the U.S. and Europe. Saturday’s all-Lachenmann program, which includes the Signal Ensemble, will be repeated next week at the Miller Auditorium in New York City.
“His music can be a little daunting,” says Jack violinist Ari Streisfeld, 26. “But he explores textures and sounds that can be funny and he organizes them in ways that make you listen differently. (For example) we might be bowing on the tuning pegs, but we’re really playing a waltz or a gigue or a march.”
Presenting familiar music in new contexts is another trend for young groups. Bars have become popular sites for reaching new audiences.
“Some of our first big events were actually in bars,” says Streisfeld. “We performed the complete quartets of Iannis Xenakis at Le Poisson Rouge in New York and got a great review. That really helped us and got our name out.”
The Greenwich Village lounge Le Poisson Rouge, just a couple of years old, has become the go-to venue for new music fans in New York, and Streisfeld says it’s inspired similar ventures in a few other cities.
“A lot of quartets are playing in bars because it brings you new audiences, though I do prefer to play in concert halls because the acoustics don’t work in bars,” says Streisfeld. “People talk about the classical music audience getting older, but it’s still there. And maybe the newest generation just doesn’t like going to concert halls.”
Originally appeared in the Times Union.