The celebrated New York-based string quartet Brooklyn Rider, which appears at the Wallis Annenberg Performing Arts Center on Saturday night, added a new cellist last year. Today Michael Nicolas, who replaced founder Eric Jacobsen, spoke to CultureCrash about the group, its repertoire, and his own role in the mix.
The quartet will play music by Glass, Janacek, Beethoven, and their violinist Colin Jacobsen.
Worth pointing out that the Wallis, in Beverly Hills, has become one of your humble blogger’s favorite places to see music and theater; more on that later, I hope. For now, here is my email conversation with Michael Nicolas.
Last year you joined a group with a strong reputation and some sense of identity. It’s not quite the same as, say, Mick Taylor joining the Rolling Stones or Nels Cline taking over the guitar chair in Wilco, but I wonder, How did you approach coming into an established quartet?
The group indeed has a strong and unique identity in the musical world, so when they were looking for a cellist to replace Eric, I think they sought out a musician with a similar ethos and spirit, someone like mindedly adventurous and omnivorous, and I was flattered to be considered. My career was, and still is, very multifaceted, performing just about any kind of music that I found interesting or challenging, and those values translated very easily to the new group, as we found we shared many of the same sensibilities as performers.
Who were some of your earliest cello heroes, and what was it about their playing that grabbed and / or influenced you? (I am not a cello player but still remember the first time I heard Janos Starker playing Bach.)
For me, David Soyer and the old Guarneri quartet recordings bring me back to my younger cello days, poring over their recordings, trying to unlock the secrets of their musicality, obsessing over how Soyer nuanced every phrase, whether it was a foundational bass line or a singing melody, and by studying those recordings, and later with him as my teacher, I learned a lot about musical expression, which I have kept with me since.
I think the criteria for choosing repertoire is just that, and only that: pieces we want to play. The more complicated question to answer is what is it that makes us want to play a piece, and that is a difficult one to pinpoint. Quality is paramount, but I do think that all of us place a great deal of importance on doing things we’ve never done before, to keep challenging ourselves and putting ourselves in musical situations that are new, and possibly uncomfortable. It not only keeps us on our toes, but also we grow more versatile as musicians and performers.
Where does this scene — call it the new new music or alt-classical or the chamber underground — seem to be thriving the most, besides Brooklyn? (The LA Philharmonic recently did an Iceland festival, with a Brooklyn fest a few years ago.) Is there a city with a wealth of the right kind of venues for a group like yours, and an audience and press that supports it all?
The LA Phil should really just check out their own backyard and do an LA fest, because to me there is a great fermenting of creative energy in the region, from composers to young ensembles to the more established performing arts and educational institutions. I, for one, wouldn’t mind somehow becoming a part of it, sharing in the adventurous spirit and California sun, and who knows, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to LA after all ;-p
Brooklyn Rider is best known for contemporary music, collaborations, and for playing pieces by group members and other composers in the Brooklyn scene. How does Ludwig Van fit in?
Well, we are a string quartet, and Beethoven wrote 16 of them, all masterpieces, but also he represents the same spirit of breaking down walls that we strive for in all our music-making. As one of the first classical music freelancers, not tied to any court or church, he had to step out and make his way in his own. Of course he had the talent and ability to get a steady job just about anywhere, but he decided to move to Vienna and surround himself with the most creative musical minds of the time.
He drew upon all sorts of musical influences, no matter their status as “high” or “low” art: folk tunes from Germany, Russia, Scotland; the urban music of Roma street performers; he simply refused to create any boundaries for himself- not even his hearing loss could stop him. In that, Beethoven is an inspiration not only for musicians like us who never tire of playing his pieces, but for all of us together on this earth, joined by our shared existence. How does Ludwig Van NOT fit in?
Can you say something about one of the pieces on Saturday’s program and why you are looking forward to playing it?
I am most excited about playing Colin’s piece BTT on the program Saturday. To me it represents exactly what Brooklyn Rider is about: boundary-pushing and forward-looking, but drawing from the past, both classical and non, so it still purports to be part of a tradition. It’s a wild ride that touches on many genres and atmospheres, but it all holds together somehow and at the end of it, you feel as if you’ve been on a journey, which is what I look for when I sit down to listen to a piece.