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Preview: Brooklyn Rider and Nicholas Phan Live at GBH with the Celebrity Series of Boston

String quartet Brooklyn Rider performs on stage in front of a purple backdrop.
Celebrity Series of Boston
Brooklyn Rider performs at GBH's Calderwood Studio

The acclaimed string quartet discusses their upcoming Celebrity Series of Boston concert with WCRB's Chris Voss.

A few weeks ago – before the leaves had begun to fully change, and well before a nor’easter blew them all down – we here at CRB (and GBH more broadly) welcomed the acclaimed string quartet Brooklyn Rider to our Calderwood studio for a hybrid live and in person concert, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston.

It’s still amazing to write those words – live and in person. Something which a few years ago would have been commonplace for a music station to be involved with is now a special privilege, and the joy at being able to hear music again the way it’s intended to be heard is boundless. That was certainly the case for the concert on October 7, which is the first of a 6-part series of Celebrity Series performances in our studios.

These concerts take advantage of Calderwood being a TV studio, and as such invite audiences to enjoy the music virtually if they prefer. They are also, however, more than welcome to come and be part of the “studio audience” and enjoy groups like Brooklyn Rider live and in person (there’s that phrase again).

If you’d like to join us for the next concert in the series – which again features Brooklyn Rider, this time joined by tenor Nicholas Phan – it will be on Friday, November 12 at 8pm, and you can find tickets here.

And to give you a little taste of what’s to come, I got a chance to talk to Brooklyn Rider about the next performance and how it ties in with the group’s larger philosophy toward music making, both new and old. Listen in the audio player above, and find the transcript below.

We hope to see you there!


Chris Voss I’m Chris Voss, from WCRB. Thanks for joining me for this conversation with the acclaimed New York City-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider! This interview is part of a series of concerts Brooklyn Rider is giving in our Calderwood television studio at GBH in Boston. These concerts, of which there are five remaining between now and April, are being presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston, and can be enjoyed both live and in person (and how awesome is it to be able to say those words again!), in the studio, or alternatively, streamed online. The next concert is on Friday, November 12, at 8pm, and I got a chance to chat with the group about what’s coming up on that concert, and how it relates to the group’s larger philosophy toward music-making. Brooklyn Rider has, for their entire history together, been known as a group that doesn’t just limit themselves to music of the past, but is also fiercely dedicated to exploration of new music. I started our conversation off by asking violist Nicholas Cords what drives that passion for new music.

Nicholas Cords I think there's a lot to be discovered in this world of new music. It's literally endless territory. And it's part of the whole reason why we're a quartet, [which] is to be part of the historic tradition, but also to move that tradition forward. I think the thing that motivates the search, one is just all of our passions, and the collective passion of the group. And I think there's a real spirit of exploration and trying to know the world more deeply through the music. And I think another, you know, part of it is actually not just knowing the world, but can we be a part in helping to change the world, at least in some small way? And I think new music can really do that because it can address all kinds of things. It can address healing. It can address things like societal ills. It can express joy at a moment when we really need joy, you know, so it's just, literally, it's an endless vessel. And I think that's one of the most exciting things that we get to do as a string quartet.

Nicholas Phan looks away from the camera, smiling.
Clubhouse Productions
Nicholas Phan

Chris Voss Violist Nicholas Cords, violist for Brooklyn Rider. Well, the ensemble isn’t only a quartet. Indeed, they frequently invite all sorts of musicians to join them and help collaborate with them in music-making. For example, for that November 12th Celebrity Series concert, Brooklyn Rider are inviting tenor Nicholas Phan to join them. And working with a singer is kind of a different animal than, say, working with a clarinetist, or as they will be doing in March, working with a mandolinist named Avi Avital. And so I put it to the group, and to violinist Colin Jacobsen, in particular, to tell us more about what’s unique about working with a singer.

Colin Jacobsen Part of the identity of Brooklyn Rider is what happens among the four of us right here with music old and new as we were talking about. But I think we love what can happen when you bring someone into the string quartet. And that can be a vocalist, it can be an instrumentalist. We love that that expands our boundaries and often takes us into unchartered musical territory for ourselves and our audiences. But Nicholas Phan is a wonderful singer, no stranger to Boston audiences. I believe he's been with H and H [Handel and Haydn Society], and Boston Baroque, and lots of different things. And he, like us, loves music old and new and that continuum. And really, I think like in the music of Nico Muhly that we'll be playing, this piece that was written for Nick and us, you hear the echoes of the past, but dealing with some very contemporary subject matter, and particularly immigration in this piece. And I think we have all had the string training of teachers telling us, "play like a vocalist." And there's no more direct way than connecting what we do to the human voice, which is much of our intent with our instruments, than being with the vocalist.

Chris Voss You know, it’s amazing how frequently you hear that, from instrumentalists, how hard they work at trying to get their instruments to sing like a voice. And as a recovering singer myself, that always sort of makes me smile. I like to hear that. Well, the November 12th concert will feature music by Nico Muhly, as Colin just mentioned, but it will also feature a world premiere by Rufus Wainwright. Now, if you don’t know Rufus Wainwright, he’s one of those people whose music is really hard to categorize, not that music needs to be categorized, necessarily. But, still, I would say he’s a singer-songwriter, but also that his music has a very composed quality. He’s super enigmatic, and a very, very cool musician. And so I asked violinist Johnny Gandelsman what it was like working with someone like Rufus Wainwright.

Johnny Gandelsman Well, Rufus is someone that we've admired for a long time, and we actually had a chance to collaborate with him a little bit a few years ago, performing together with him and Anne Sophie von Otter. And we asked him whether or not he has some material that he might be able to reserve for us. And so the Three English Waltzes are three songs that Rufus wrote but has not recorded or performed. So this will be a world premiere, and Colin is working on arranging those for us. And you know, Rufus's music is gorgeous and very unique, and it feels like a great fit with the Schubert, which will be playing, Death and the Maiden. So, as you said, you know, the whole program has vocal ties and it'll be really fun to try it out.

Chris Voss The voice of violinist Johnny Gandelsman. And I’m really glad that he mentioned the final work of the concert, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. This is actually a work written in 1824, and the second movement uses as its inspiration a song that Schubert wrote, called Der Tod und das Mädchen, or “Death and the maiden.”


Just a bit of the song there. You know, amusingly, the Schubert quartet will be the only non-vocal piece on the program, its vocal origins notwithstanding, and, more than that, it’s also the first time in the series that we’ll hear Brooklyn Rider get back to their more, shall we say, traditional classical roots. And I wanted to know more about that, what that was like, going between the old and the new. Here’s what cellist Michael Nicholas had to say.

String quartet Brooklyn Rider takes a break between pieces, in front of a yellow backdrop.
Celebrity Series of Boston
Brooklyn Rider at GBH's Calderwood Studio

Michael Nicolas We like to think of ourselves as bearers of this tradition of string quartet music, which has a history going back three hundred some odd years. But we very much think of it as part of a continuum, where it's a living tradition, where that music can coexist with music written just yesterday, and they both tend to inform each other in such a strange way, a counter-intuitive way where the old music is looked at with fresh eyes and the new music seems somehow timeless and connected to that continuum.

Chris Voss But how do you do that? How do you take old music that’s been performed perhaps millions of times, and make it fresh, while simultaneously showing ownership over new music -- new music, perhaps, like the Rufus Wainwright, the ink still wet on the page -- and getting that music to feel grounded and engrained? This is something that’s always intrigued me about groups like Brooklyn Rider, and when I presented this question to the group, well, they had a lot of great things to say. Here again, violinist Johnny Gandelsman.

Johnny Gandelsman Working on new music means that we can talk directly to the composers, right? And there's a sense of empathy that is built both ways. And the other thing that one discovers once you start having these conversations is that no matter how open or detailed the score is, there is, besides the score, there is 100 percent yet to discover as interpreters of someone else's music. So just being able to look at a score with fresh eyes, we can then take that approach and look at a score of Schubert's, which, you know, many people know. It's a piece, as you said, that, you know, has been played for many, many years. And yet, you know, there's a way to look at it as if it was written yesterday, and that's what we try to do.

Nicholas Cords We live right now in a time that's actually unusual in that the world of music and the world of the string quartet is actually a world that is quite focused in the past, in a way like, you know, you're responsible for all that tradition that came before you. But if you look at the generations of Schubert, of Haydn, and many others, those generations were intensely focused on the music of now, rather, their "now." It is really about, like, what's new? It's not about something that was preserved or put in a museum, whereas something is really about the generative quality of the musical language that was happening. And that was exciting, and we just live in a really interesting time right now because we have all that music that comes before us, but then we have this endless possibility of what could be in front of us. So that's why I think we very much like to have a foot equally in both worlds.

Chris Voss Violist Nicholas Cords; before that, violinist Johnny Gandelsman. And we also heard violinist Colin Jacobsen and cellist Michael Nicholas, who, combined, are Brooklyn Rider. My thanks to the group for agreeing to chat with me a bit about their upcoming concert. It is on Friday, November 12, at 8pm, in our Calderwood Studio here at GBH and at WCRB in Boston. The event is being held both in person, which is awesome, and virtually, which is great as well. For tickets, go to the Celebrity Series website. I’m Chris Voss; thanks so much for listening, and we hope to see you soon!

Chris Voss is the Weekday Afternoon Host and a Producer for CRB.