New Classical Tracks: A Walking Fire

by Julie Amacher
September 18, 2013

Listen New Classical Tracks: A Walking Fire
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A Walking Fire (Courtesy of Mercury Classics)

Every musical ensemble responds to its own individual passions. Violist Nicholas Cords of Brooklyn Rider says the musical desires of their string quartet cover a lot of ground.

"We have a passion for collaboration with musicians from different traditions around the world," he explains, "and we also have a strong passion for the tradition of our instruments. And I think our generation — I think we try to cast a very large umbrella for what we do, and to be able to say, actually all this stuff can belong together."

Brooklyn Rider's recipe for success is two violins, a viola, a cello, and the world. Their latest recording, A Walking Fire, is a guided expedition to Hungary, Romania and Iran. Hungarian composer Bela Bartok's epic String Quartet No. 2 is at the heart of this new release. We start off, however, in Romania, with a piece titled Culai. Violinist Colin Jacobsen says this suite was written by Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin, a New-York based Russian composer.

"Ljova is a wonderful violist, composer and band leader in New York City. He's done a lot of film music. But he had a very wonderful experience traveling to Bucharest and actually a village outside of Bucharest, Clejani, where a very famous Gypsy band or Roma group named Taref de Haidouks, they're from that village and many of the villagers are the musicians in that band. One of the leaders of that band, who has since passed away, was Nicolae Neacsu, or Culai. So this piece is a tribute to him and to that experience that Lev took and translated into his own voice."

There are plenty of fun licks for violist Nicholas Cords in the opening movement titled The Game. He says this piece really reflects the delightful gypsy band that inspired it.

"I think Taref de Haidouks continues to be a group that has [its] own brand of fun on the stage. And I think part of what [Taref de Haidouks does] and part of what Ljova was channeling when he wrote this piece was this notion that the whole group will be going along very single-mindedly and then somebody will just decide to change direction. Part of that game is to see how quickly your friends can respond to that. You throw them off course purposely, and you sort of wait for reaction. That group is so fast, it sort of resembles a school of fish swimming in the ocean together. So that's great fun for us."

Colin Jacobsen's Three Miniatures for String Quartet were inspired by his friendship with the Persian master musician Kayhan Kalhor. Colin explains the story behind the first movement, which is woven together with another personal favorite of his by Arnold Schoenberg titled, Pierrot Lunaire.

"It's called Majnun's Moonshine, and in a sense the whole piece and the album is about getting inspired by travel. Nick and I had the opportunity to visit our friend, a great Persian musician, in Iran about 8 years ago and that experience has resonated with me to this day. I was very inspired by the connection between the visual arts, the poetry and the music that seems very tangible — the way ornamentation can be elevated to an ecstatic level. And you find this in the miniature painting tradition. So these three are sort of three musical poems or miniature paintings, and this one is sort of a play on the words. Majnun is sort of the archetypal lover of the Middle East — Majnun and Layla, sort of the Romeo and Juliet of the Middle East. And he's always drunk on moonlight and on the idea of Layla and transcendent love, and he becomes a poet. Meanwhile, a piece I love is Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire, another version of getting drunk on moonlight, so I guess that's sort of the background."

The name of this disc, A Walking Fire, is taken from a poem by 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi, and is a metaphor for love. It also beautifully encompasses the process through which each piece on this recording evolved — a journey of wide-eyed wonder transformed into a passionate creation.