Brooklyn Rider opens Celebrity Series residency with gripping Golijov premiere

October 8, 2021 at 3:27 pm

By Jonathan Blumhofer

Brooklyn Rider performed for the Celebrity Series Thursday night at Calderwood Studio. Photo: Robert Torres

Brooklyn Rider opened its season-long residency with the Celebrity Series on Thursday night at GBH’s Calderwood Studio. The string quartet’s program of five recent works ran a gamut of styles but consistently showcased the ensemble’s technical excellence and wide-ranging musical curiosity.

The night’s most substantial offering was Osvaldo Golijov’s Um Día Bom (A Good Day), which received its world premiere. Lasting about twenty-five minutes and consisting of five contrasting movements, the piece is meant to depict “a life from morning to midnight and beyond”; in some pre-performance comments, the composers also called the work “a ballet, but for children.”

Regardless, the music is striking for both its directness and invention. Clearly, Golijov—who has recently emerged from a long creative hiatus—remains a formidable composer. His writing in Um Día Bom is broadly lyrical and highly idiomatic: all four parts busily exchange foreground and background roles.

The work is also expressively rich. The first movement, “Hovering in the Cradle,” opens with a floating violin melody over an undulating accompaniment. Aside from a few moments of tension brought on by harmonic density, the writing here is fresh, tuneful, and largely lacking in conflict.

In the second (“…while the rain…”), feverish violin and viola pizzicati and rapid cello arpeggios depict the patter of the elements while a soaring violin solo alludes to a couple dancing inside their home.

The expression takes a darker turn in the affecting third movement, “Around the Fire,” which is an arrangement of the eponymous Yiddish song. This setting is construed as a memorial to the composer’s friend, Guillermo Limonic, who died of Covid-19 in the early months of the pandemic.

The tone remains macabre in the short, driving fourth movement, “Riding with Death.” Inspired by a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Golijov’s writing draws on various extended techniques and contrasts of sul ponticello and normale articulations.

A sense of repose returns in the finale, “Feather.” With its long-breathed melodic lines over rocking accompaniments and vaguely jazzy harmonies (Golijov wrote it, partly, as an homage to Chick Corea), the movement culminates in a gently rolling, diatonic coda.

On Thursday, Brooklyn Rider’s performance was taut and focused. The group fully mined Um Día Bom’s wide dynamic range and busy textures; their playing of the introspective moments, in the finale particularly, was captivating.

At the same time, the performance abounded in character, from the serene lyricism of the outer movements to the bravura variations at the heart of “Around the Fire” and the harrowing chiaroscuro of “Riding with Death.” While this is music that requires repeated hearings to fully grasp, Golijov’s new work proved gripping in its premiere.

Also receiving a first performance Thursday was Gonzalo Grau’s Aroma a Distancia. Drawing on dance forms from Venezuela, Spain, and elsewhere, it proved a poignant and timely essay with its focus on dualities—particularly the contrasting emotions of longing and joy.

Similarly engrossing was Matana Roberts’ borderlands… This 2018 meditation on the continuing southern border crisis was written for Brooklyn Rider’s “Healing Modes Project.” The piece doesn’t offer any easy answers, instead plumbing the extremes of graphic notation, extended techniques, and chance.

Often vivid, sometimes gritty, Roberts’ score is fervent and strongly shaped. Violinist Colin Jacobsen noted that no two performances are ever the same; even so, Thursday’s was remarkable for its slashing extremes and, especially, the handful of contemplative moments.

Bookending the program were, respectively, Kinan Azmeh’s Dabke on Martense Street and Jacobsen’s arrangement of João Gilberto’s Undiú.

The latter is a crafty adaptation that ranges from scratchy to shimmering, includes some bluesy violin riffs, and culminates in the quartet members quietly singing the song’s refrain (“Undiú”).

Azmeh’s Dabke imagines a Syrian circular dance unfolding on the street the composer lives on in Brooklyn. It’s music that, by and large, charms: tuneful but gently dissonant, clearly structured, rhythmically vigorous.

In Brooklyn Rider’s hands, both selections danced with beguiling warmth.

The concert is available to stream through October 13. The Celebrity Series next presents tenor Nicholas Phan and Brooklyn Rider performing music by Rufus Wainwright, Nico Muhly, and Franz Schubert at 8 p.m. on November 12 at GBH Calderwood Studio.; 617-482-6661

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