Brooklyn Rider is known for its forays into new and offbeat music. Recent albums by the string quartet have ranged from Middle Eastern crossover to Philip Glass.
So it seems somewhat surprising that the group will be playing Beethoven at this month's Ringling International Arts Festival, which specializes in cutting-edge productions in music, dance and theater, under the artistic direction of the Baryshnikov Arts Center in New York. The six-day festival begins Oct. 11 at the Ringling Center for the Arts in Sarasota.
"We certainly don't want to be a group that only does new music or only does world music collaborations," says Johnny Gandelsman, 33, a violinist in the quartet. "We see everything as connected."
At the festival, Brooklyn Rider will be playing Beethoven's String Quartet No 14 in C-Sharp Minor, Op. 131, but it will be paired with something more exotic, Beloved, do not let me be discouraged by the group's other violinist, Colin Jacobsen.
The string quartet, founded about six years ago, gets its name from the New York borough, where all the members live, and Der Blaue Reiter (the Blue Rider), a movement of expressionist artists in Germany from 1911 to 1914. Others in the group are Nicholas Cords, viola, and Eric Jacobsen (Colin's brother), cello.
The quartet members all went to either the Juilliard School or the Curtis Institute of Music, and they all play in Yo-Yo Ma's multicultural Silk Road Project. Jacobsen's piece was inspired by working with the project on a chamber music version of Layla and Majnun, a sort of Romeo and Juliet tale from 16th century Turkey. The group also plans to play a selection of gypsy music.
The Op. 131 quartet is one of Beethoven's towering masterpieces, a work that the composer once said he loved most of all his quartets. It was also a particular favorite of Schubert, who requested to hear a performance of it on his deathbed.
"As Brooklyn Rider, this is the first Beethoven quartet we're going to play in concert," Gandelsman says. On Oct. 31, the group will play it as part of a program at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall, along with a work related to the seven-movement Beethoven quartet, called Seven Steps.
"With Seven Steps, we've been working on creating our own piece, kind of like a rock or jazz band would, inspired by Beethoven's sketches for Op. 131," Gandelsman says. The 10-minute piece is not on the Sarasota program, though the violinist says they could play it as an encore.
The performance history of late Beethoven quartets is incredibly rich. Gandelsman says Brooklyn Rider especially admires old-fashioned recordings by the likes of the Busch Quartet from the 1930s. "String playing was very different back then, but to us, the further you go back in recorded history, the closer music is to the way it was played in Beethoven or Brahms' time," he says.
As an example of the difference between vintage and modern Beethoven, the violinist suggests that the older style of playing with less vibrato "creates a lot more clarity in the voices."
Brooklyn Rider will play its program four times during the festival at the Historic Asolo Theater, an ornate jewel box of a space seating 286. "The opportunity to play it so many times in the same hall is a bonus," Gandelsman says. "It's almost like a jazz artist would have a weeklong residency at the Village Vanguard in New York. You get to build a familiarity with the place and with the sound in the room. From night to night I'm thinking the performances will probably be quite different."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.