Are you a string quartet with a passion for the unconventional? Do you want to convey this to your audience before you play a single note? For New York-based foursome Brooklyn Rider, it all starts with the name. Most string quartets state plainly what they are, even those that push virtual boundaries. It might have been the easiest thing in the world to simply be the “Brooklyn Rider Quartet,” but that was not to be, and what a relief that it was not. Two trochees, a forward march in four syllables: BROOK-lyn RI-der. “I’m going to hear Brooklyn Rider,” you might tell a friend, and in the brief seconds before you explain “it’s a string quartet,” Brooklyn Rider could be anything at all.
And for most of its Boston excursions, Brooklyn Rider has not just been a self-contained string quartet. Past local performances have seen them playing to the strengths of their collaborators, including pianist and composer Gabriel Kahane and saxophonist Joshua Redman. In the two upcoming performances of the quartet’s three-show Celebrity Series of Boston residency, tenor Nicholas Phan (Nov. 12) and mandolinist Avi Avital (March 18) will add a fifth leg to Brooklyn Rider’s table. But on Thursday evening at GBH’s Calderwood Studio, Brooklyn Rider was simply Brooklyn Rider — violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas — playing music especially composed for Brooklyn Rider. Nothing more was necessary.
Music of the Americas was the flavor of the day, from Brooklyn in lockdown to the treetops of Brazil. The first of these was illustrated in Kinan Azmeh’s “Dabke on Martense Street,” written in the pandemic’s first few desperate months. At the piece’s center is the composer’s dreamlike vision of his New Yorker neighbors joining in a round dance from his native Syria. Nicolas called out from the center with a persistent rhythm in the cello while the high strings fretted, fussed, and eventually joined in.
Matana Roberts’s “Borderlands,” a pointed response to the humanitarian crisis at the United States-Mexico border, felt less like a piece of music and more like a sonic sculpture constructed in real time. Because the composer’s graphic score includes more textual instructions and abstract visual cues than actual musical material, no two performances are exactly the same, but absent a very close listen to multiple recordings it would be hard to tell one performance apart from another. Extended techniques were in abundance — bows skittered spiderlike up the highest strings and dug down for gravel, Gandelsman knocked on the body of his violin and all four joined in shouting fragments from the Declaration of Independence. In both sound and sentiment, it strongly recalled George Crumb’s “Black Angels” without being derivative.
Next came two world premieres, and both deserve second listens and beyond. I would gladly pay for the virtual concert ticket just for a few more listens of Gonzalo Grau’s “Aroma a distancia,” blooming headily with the rhythms of Grau’s native Venezuela and adopted home city of Madrid. It was nakedly sentimental without being schmaltzy; it felt like it should be in a black-and-white movie, if it wouldn’t feel like a crime to relegate it to the background.
Then there was “Um Día Bom” (A Good Day) by Osvaldo Golijov, who was in attendance to introduce his own music and excitedly announced that he’d walked to the concert from his Brookline home. In the composer’s program note, the five-movement piece openly wore its multidisciplinary influences, which range from poetry by Antonio Vivaldi (of “Four Seasons” fame) and the music of Chick Corea to the paintings of Gustav Klimt. Translating this inspirational Pinterest board of sorts into a compelling piece is a tall task, but it gelled more often than not. The standout was the third movement, a fusion of a traditional Yiddish song and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet in memory of a friend who had died from COVID-19. A mournful procession transitioned into a klezmer knees-up, with Cords’s viola doing its best impression of a balalaika before Gandelsman took off flying into a virtuosic fantasy on the borrowed Yiddish melody. The fourth movement, titled “Riding with Death,” was less compelling, stagnant even in its perpetual motion, but the final movement, “Feather,” closed the gap with a serene evensong gorgeous in its simple variations on a five-note figure.
Perhaps it was only natural, then, to end the evening with something avian, and they delivered in the form of Jacobsen’s arrangement of João Gilberto’s “Undiú,” the title of which is a Portuguese bird noise. Gilberto’s star rose on his bossa nova interpretations, but “Undiú” — one of Gilberto’s only original compositions — sails on the “baião,” a percussive, rocking rhythm from northeastern Brazil. If the stark and scratchy string sounds at the beginning sounded more Hitchcock than tropical, it was only for contrast with the work’s core, with Gilberto’s lullaby-like melody borne aloft by one instrument atop the gentle rhythms and delicate accents of the other three.
It was the kind of performance that left me satisfied and eager to hear more, from both the quartet on its own and with collaborators. Brooklyn Rider is first and foremost a string quartet, and an excellent one at that, and its string quartet-ness neither defines nor limits its capabilities. Ride on.
At GBH Calderwood Studio, Oct. 7. Available for on-demand online viewing until Oct. 13. www.celebrityseries.org