Music review: Brooklyn Rider – The Four Elements, Melbourne Recital Centre

A program that grappled with climate change was performed with aplomb by the New York string quartet.
Brooklyn Rider. A Black and white image of four men clowning. One has his arms out and one leg in the air, the other three sit around him, one gesticulating with his viola, one with his hands on his head and the third siting quite demurely with his hands holding an iPhone.

The Brooklyn Rider string quartet lived up to the reputation of their trendy New York borough namesake as they walked onto the stage in colourful clothes, linen fabrics and with iPads in lieu of paper scores. 

Their program for the evening, titled The Four Elements, was an exploration of nature and a ‘humble call to action’ on climate change. A Short While to be Here composed by one of the Quartet’s violinists, Colin Jacobsen, was invigorating as it kicked off the night’s program. Taking inspiration from American folk songs, the work evoked the wide open plains of the Wild West, dipped into American Gothic and finished in a celebration fit for a Southern barnyard. 

The piece represented the element of earth and, while a fantastic performance, signalled the program’s tenuous connection to both the idea of elements and the climate change messaging. In the case of A Short While to be Here, there was a focus on American folk songs and too few moments exploring the US’s natural wonders within that. 

Hollow Flame by Akshaya Tucker, was the piece that best conveyed Brooklyn Rider’s raison d’être for The Four Elements. The piece represented the element of fire and was an emotional reflection on California’s devastating recent bushfires – mirroring Australia’s own. The piece began with Johnny Gandelsman using his bow to create the sound of nature – the soft breeze, the buzzing of insects and life itself. It was so effective it seemed as if it were a recording taken from the heart of the bush.

This sense of peace was disturbed, as the metaphorical fire encroached, by a building sense of pandemonium achieved through a technically ambitious score expertly performed by the Quartet.  

However, Hollow Flame rolled unsatisfyingly into Andreia Pinto Correia’s Aere senza stelle and Henri Dutilleux’s Ainsi la nuit, both representing the element of air. The pieces didn’t have enough musical variation to provide a clear demarcation between them. 

The second act followed the trend of the first with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110 and Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae struggling to connect to the elements of fire and water respectively. Both felt more like emotional journeys. With the Shostakovich, it was the anguished frenzy of processing violence and loss; with Golijov, a sense of bone-weary melancholia. 

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This contemporary style of composition, with a focus on meditative soundscapes, isn’t easily digestible and will garner polarising responses from audiences no matter how many moments of technical and creative prowess the Quartet displays. Nonetheless, it was a welcome visit from the Brooklynites with their ambitious and timely concept.

Brooklyn Rider are: Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), Nicholas Cords (viola), Michael Nicolas (cello)

Brooklyn Rider – The Four Elements was performed on 27 February 2024 at the Melbourne Recital Centre.

Jenna Schroder is an emerging arts critic, with a background in dance and voice, and an organiser at the Media, Entertainment, Arts Alliance. Outside of her union activism, Jenna can be found performing at The Improv Conspiracy, around the Melbourne comedy scene and producing independent work across multiple platforms. Twitter: @jennaschroder00