Schubert and pop songs merge fluently with Gabriel Kahane, Brooklyn Rider

February 6, 2016 at 12:00 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider performed at the Sanders Theater Friday night. Photo: Robert Torres

Singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane and Brooklyn Rider performed at the Sanders Theatre Friday night. Photo: Robert Torres

 The practice of blending genres in classical music may seem like a hip, new gesture, but the tradition has long involved the combination of divergent styles to create new forms and enhance older ones.

Beethoven drew upon one of his own contredanses for the conclusion of his Eroica Symphony; Liszt mined gypsy-style fiddling for some of most difficult piano works; and Copland spiced his early ballet scores Grohg and Hear Ye! Hear Ye! with jazzy licks.

Today, many young composers, especially those under the age of 40, have turned to pop music as sources of inspiration, flavoring their compositions with the sounds of rock, hip-hop, and house music.

One ensemble and one soloist that stand at the vanguard of such genre-bending styles are the Brooklyn Rider Quartet and singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane. Both made strong impressions in Boston last year when they performed as part of the Celebrity Series Stave Sessions.

Friday night at Sanders Theatre, Brooklyn Rider and Kahane came together for a Celebrity Series concert that covered music influenced by rock, pop, and world music, with a little Schubert thrown in for good measure.

In fact, Schubert’s example set the tone for the evening as the quartet and Kahane performed original songs between the movements of Schubert’s String Quarter in A minor,  Op. 29, known as the Rosamunde. Brooklyn Rider member Nicholas Cords noted from the stage that the combination of string quartets and songs, even interlinked as they were on Friday, were popular fare in Schubertiades. 

The Brooklyn Rider Quartet—violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen—play together with a uniform blend and sensitive communication that found the intimate side of the Schubert’s song-like work, taking listeners on a journey from darkness to light. The first movement unfolded from faint, silvery lines while the second movement was played with a tender intimacy. By the time they played the third movement—after intermission—their sound had taken on an inviting warmth, the waltz-like phrases moving at a graceful lilt. The finale sounded bright and nimble.

The quartet supplied shimmering cords to the songs Kahane, which made up the bulk of the program.

Kahane is riding high these days for his work as both a popular songwriter and classical composer, the latter style most visible in his Craigslistlieder. 

Works such as Bradbury Studies and Come On All You Ghosts, heard Friday night, fall neatly between two extremes for music that resembles Schubert as much as Paul McCartney or Paul Simon.

“Bradbury,” like many of Kahane’s songs, features intelligent music and impressionistic lyrics. The song, named for the Los Angeles building used in the climax of the movie Blade Runner, sounds as a soft wail colored with hints of bluesy phrases. Holding the song together are churning minimalist figures in the piano, played by Kahane, that shift, surprisingly but effectively, into different keys. Brooklyn Rider supplied moments of sunshine with warm chords.

Kahane’s Bradbury Studies for string quartet, based on Kahane’s song, involves a plethora of styles, with passages of Schoenbergian chromaticism intermingling with phrases of Ivesian humor. The original song at the heart of this piece struggles to break through, doing so in music of a steady groove. In all, the Brooklyn Rider quartet played with power and commitment to make a strong case for the work.

Come On All You Ghosts, which is featured on Kahane’s and Brooklyn Rider’s newest album, is a stunning work of poetic imagery and color. Based on poems by Matthew Zapruder, this song cycle for voice and strings captures the quirky humor of the text, prevalent in phrases such as “I am president of this glass of water,” as well as moments of haunting mystery. The music is ear-catching and in constant flux, moving from spiny dissonances in one moment and in driving, off-center rhythms in another, the music at times dissolving into a veil of harmonics. Kahane and Brooklyn Rider offered a fluent performance.

Filling out the concert were songs from Kahane’s 2014 album, Ambassador, a close study of the often-overlooked soul of Los Angeles, which featured the composer’s stylish vocals.

Kahane sings with a voice of soft but penetrating power that has a hint of sadness. His performance of the titular “Ambassador,” which tells of the hotel where Robert F. Kennedy was killed, was tinged with emotion, the music flavored with a touch of the blues. 

The most powerful song was the closer, “Empire Liquor Mart,” a sorrowful and vivid retelling of the murder of a young African-American woman. Kahane’s singing involved tasteful combinations of folk and rock styles, with the Brooklyn Rider Quartet filling in with passages of bare dissonance that seemed to glow from a distance.

“That Schubert, he was good at music,” Kahane joked early in the evening. Kahane, a composer and songwriter with a penchant for stirring intensity all his own, is in good company. 

The next classical music event sponsored by the Celebrity Series will feature guitarist Miloš Karadaglic 3 p.m. February 21 at Jordan Hall.; 617-482-6661


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