ROCKPORT — Walking through Rockport on a winter night, golden lights shine outside quaint shops, none of which are open. Wood smoke’s pungent sweetness floods the senses. On Main Street by the water, the roar and crash of the sea can be heard, the rare whoosh of a passing car melding indiscernibly with the natural sound. It seems a scene removed from time.
In the Shalin Liu Performance Center, against a backdrop of the dark water, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider (Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Nicholas Cords, viola; Michael Nicolas, cello) performed Wednesday night. The four had worked in the past few days with young musicians from the Rockport schools, and many were present in the audience.
Each phrase of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 3, “Mishima,” rolled and receded in a swell of sound. Four large window panes made up most of the rear wall behind the musicians, and just as it was possible to focus attention through a single pane or all four at once to see the larger vista, it was possible to either follow a single instrument’s journey or sit back to take in the quartet’s full sound. The “Mishima” quartet is adapted from Glass’s score to the 1985 film of the same name, and Brooklyn Rider’s rendition was a slice of slow-burning drama until the overlong final movement, which not even these keen musicians could save from somnolence.
In the score to Janácek’s String Quartet No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata,” every movement is marked “con moto,” with motion, and the quartet took that to heart. Their approach stretched and compressed time, incorporating the guttural, unvarnished timbre of folk fiddling in solo moments. The Tolstoy novella from which it takes its inspiration tells of lives destroyed by jealous rage, and the second movement was a musical panic attack within a dissonant dance, eerie violin harmonics mocking the rumbling cello. The musicians tilted forward as they played, throwing their bodies into the music.
The second half opened with a piece by one of the quartet’s members, Jacobsen’s “BTT,” which played with motifs based on the names Bach and Cage. The music moved through countless combinations of color, rhythm, and mood, a definite mixed bag. The first impression was hamfisted and aggressive, as four bows bushwhacked through choppy chords, but moments shone through: a languid intertwining of chromatic scales and long notes here, Gandelsman’s second violin zipping around the scale there.
Compact and fascinating, Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11, “Serioso,” is as changeable and volatile as New England weather. The hall’s marvelous acoustics illuminated the pensive fugue in the second movement, and stormy blasts interrupted crisply sculpted contemplation in the third. Channeled through this quartet, the technically demanding score emerged as a riveting expression of turmoil and staggering poignancy. It was both of its time and transcending time, like the scent of wood smoke, like the sound of the waves crashing on the rocks.
At Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, Wednesday night.Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.