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  • Writer's pictureIlona Oltuski

String Feast - Brooklyn Rider and Israeli Mandolinist Avi Avital at New York's 92Y

Surprise and familiarity were only two opposing criteria that kept the 92Ys dimly lit stage filled with an abundance of tonal drama and emotional transformation.

Courtesy of the latest performance-alliance between Brooklyn Rider and the Israeli star mandolinist Avi Avital, the concert revealed their copious contrapuntal range of string sonorities in a creative blend of new and traditional repertoire.

With the opening of the groups’ playful arrangement of the classical La Musica Notturna Ritratta di Madrid, by Luigi Boccherini (born in 1743), audiences quickly realized the closely intertwined dialectic evocation of the classical score’s modernity, with classical reminiscences built into much of the contemporary repertoire that followed.

This was especially true for Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte. First performed by the Brentano Quartet at Princeton University, April 2011, it was written in response to the composer “hearing the Brentano Quartet play Haydn’s Op. 77 No. 2 — with their spare and soulful shift to the D-flat major trio in the minuet. It is structured like a minuet and trio, riffing on that classical form but taking it a little further. I love the way some music (like the minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.” (From the composer’s website)

Throughout the usual-intermission-omitting performance, the dramatic gestures of the performers supported the juxtaposed soundscapes of crass harmonic dissonances with the lush cadences of more familiar rhythmic and melodic terrains. This promoted audience’ participation in a constant flux of leaning in and leaning back.

(Photo: Ilona Oltuski, courtesy 92Y)

In Avi Avital, his strong artistic individuality notwithstanding, the group has found a particularly well-suited collaborator. Seamlessly, it seemed, the crisp yet mellow sound emanating from the mandolin matched the string quartet’s energy in its even most vibrant and voluminous turns.

As the program notes relate,” Avital has been compared to Andrés Segovia for his championship of his instrument, and to Jascha Heifetz for his incredible virtuosity. He has been praised for his passionate and ‘explosive charismatic’ performance (The New York Times) and is a driving force, behind the reinvigoration of the mandolin repertory.”

The second piece on the program Prelude, for Solo Mandolin, by Sicilian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima, is a folk-inspired ballade that brought audiences back to the instrument’s historic Mediterranean roots. Avital is an exclusive Deutsche Grammophon recording artist. A shining testimonial to his musical mastery, the piece is featured on his Art of the Mandolin, a recorded collection of pieces originally written for the instrument, which includes some of the by now over 100 pieces, commissioned by the artist. Prelude for Solo Mandolin was a mutual commission by Avital and the Adele and John Gray Endowment Fund.

Avital is an internationally renowned performer and a regular presence in the great halls of the concert scene, which did not keep him from directing his warm and wide smile, towards his little son, who jumped up and down on his seat, during the thunderous applause following his superb performance.

While Avital is the first mandolin soloist, nominated for a classical Grammy, he often transcends the classical genre and fluently switches in between such musical categorization.

Wearing down music’s superposed barriers between its genres, of course is one of the signatures of the Brooklyn based Riders, who continuously forge new connections with musical influences and international influencers. Their wide-ranging artist collaborations usually lead them to engaging explorations of repertoire, ranging from early baroque to folk and rock music, and music in association with different art forms.

“With this practice they pay homage to ideas proclaimed in the Almanac of their namesake artist collective of the Blue Rider,” I concluded my interview with the Jacobs brothers during an earlier stage of their career.

At the time, cellist and conductor Eric Jacobsen, who co-founded Brooklyn Rider as well as the orchestral collective The Knights with his brother Eric, the violist of the quartet, was still an integral part of the Brooklyn Rider. In 2016, when Colin’s role as the music director of the Orlando Philharmonic demanded his full attention, Michael Nicolas, his former classmate at Juilliard, took over as the quartet’s cellist.

With all the adventurous exploration and great variety of collaborative partners, friendship plays a big role for the group of artists. The personal relationship between the artists, close-knit friendships, and family relations seems to build a special and important component of their artistic lives. For the Jacobs brothers and many of their longtime collaborators, it was incorporated early on, since the days of playing music with friends in their Brooklyn’s home living room.

The last piece on the program, Love Potion, Expired, from Culai is part of the complete string quartet, previously commissioned for the group, by Lev “LJova” Zhurbin. A first cousin of Johnny Gandelsman, violinist of the Rider, he was in attendance of the performance, and brought his dad. This communal familiarity with each other, as well as the ensembles’ personal exchange on stage, projects to the audience. The way they casually take turns addressing the audience from the stage to talk about the next piece they will perform says a lot about their idea of the relationship between music and the message, they would like to communicate. Announcing his own composition: Time and Again, composed during the pandemic, Colin adds, recalling these difficult times: “Music can address all kind of things – its an endless vessel.”

(Photo: Ilona Oltuski, courtesy 92Y)

Even the performers’ individual attire promotes the absence of any dogmatism, which Colin already explained to me in 2013.” One of the things we hold dear, we look for and ultimately find in our music, is the spirit, rather than the words…The notes are on the page, and yes, playing the notes correctly is great, but it is a guideline, still. To find the spirit of a piece one can’t get dogmatic. It is — like in life —a constant struggle, we continuously search for new meaning, and we don’t want to get stuck in routines.”

Getting stuck in routines might not really be something any of these performers, especially as a team should have to worry about too much. Whether through their personal approach, attention to detail, musical gusto, or their often-re-calibrated artistic curiosity, Brooklyn Rider has not only carved out their unique niche, but has become one chamber music’s of the leading forces of their generation.


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