Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Colin and Eric Jacobsen: Collaboration in Brooklyn Rider and The Knights

This pair of brothers is pioneering a unique dimension of artistic collaboration with both The Knights and Brooklyn Rider, and through their quest for creative expression, redefine the method and meaning of classical and chamber music performance.
Photo: Sarah Small - Colin(right) and Eric Jacobsen
Colin (violin) and Eric (cello) Jacobsen took inspiration for their quartet, Brooklyn Rider, from Der Blaue Reiter (The Blue Rider), an early 20th century artistic alliance promoting modernist art through exhibitions of Germany’s pre World War I Expressionist circle, which included artists like Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc, as well as the musician Arnold Schoenberg. Besides having a strong social dynamic, the group was loosely united by the common ideological aim of expressing spiritual truths; they believed strongly in the connection between music and visual art, and were committed to bringing a personal, individualistic approach to their creative endeavor.
It is this same effervescent approach to musical collaboration, and the spirit of friendship within the musical community of Brooklyn, that allows Brooklyn Rider as well as The Knights to stand out from the myriad chamber music collaborations that have arisen within the young generation, a surge partly impacted by educational efforts, such as the Marlboro Festival’s, on chamber music education.
The Knights were created as a modest group in 2000, consisting initially of strings alone. The group gained winds in 2006, and the quartet that constitutes Brooklyn Rider came into its current state seven years ago. Musicians with diverse backgrounds unite in The Knights’ efforts to change the representation of classical music; the ensemble employs unique approaches and talents in their performances, and maintains the capacity to expand and retract the ensemble size as needed.
“We always attempt to look forward, but with tons of humility and respect and acknowledgement of past traditions. As far as the inspiration of the name, ‘Der Blaue Reiter,’ well we don’t claim to be experts in the movement but it touched on the idea of the kind of shared vision that inspires us as well,” says Eric, while we wait for Colin to join our conversation in a tiny coffee shop downtown. Colin is the older of the talented brothers, the two of whom possess musical outlooks and ways of life that seem totally in sync. Colin (pictured below on the right) arrives carrying his violin case, as he is on his way to practice. The brothers bounce ideas and explanations back and forth, and now the team seems complete. They generously include me in the creative course of the personal interview, which we all seem to enjoy.

The two brothers have been in constant contact with creative powerhouses who have inspired them throughout their careers. Since inspiration is an important aspect of choosing collaborators and repertoire, it seems the natural initial concern for high-caliber musicians like Eric and Colin, who have performed with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road ensemble since early in their careers. Colin started playing with Silk Road in 2000, thanks to recommendations from his friends at Tanglewood; Eric was invited to join some years later, and together, the brothers followed the prestigious cellist to music festivals at Caramoor and Ravinia. Last summer, The Knights were able to partake in these festivals as an ensemble. At Juilliard, both brothers were greatly influenced by greatly respected pedagogues and performers like Colin’s teacher, Robert Mann, founding member of the Juilliard String Quartet, and Eric’s teacher, Harvey Shapiro.
Eric, who describes himself as slightly obsessed with perfection, still strives for constant improvement in order to keep himself inspired. He says, “Every time I touch the cello I am trying to improve and teach myself; even when I am on the subway, I am constantly brainstorming. I look to excite and surprise myself in the first place – it’s not a selfless proposition, but yet it’s so exciting to be able to stimulate other people.” As cellist and conductor of the Knights, Eric always brings a thought-out, yet exuberantly executed idea to the rehearsal and performances.
Eric says, “My brother gives me tons of inspiration; he is consistently able to show me new paths, as well as other artists, I am surrounded by, like Johnny and Nick, (both co-collaborators of Brooklyn Rider-Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violins; Nicholas Cords, viola; Eric Jacobsen, cello).” Colin adds: “Our father is a great violinist himself, who performed with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra and we grew up in a home with music as a lifestyle, musicians rehearsing and hanging out constantly.”
Embracing the communal satisfaction of making music together, both artists continue the musical lifestyle instilled in them from childhood, but reach beyond the immediate classical circle, forging connections with musical influences ranging from early baroque, to folk and rock music, as well as exploring music in association with different art forms. With this practice, they pay homage to ideas proclaimed by the ‘Almanac’ of their namesake group, The Blue Rider. Brooklyn Rider looks to connect music with dance, fine art, and literature for their new, innovative presentations. “One of the things we hold dear and we look for and ultimately find in our music,” says Colin, “is the spirit rather than the words….We all struggle with using the right words. The notes are on the page, and yes, playing the notes correctly is great, but it is a guideline, still. To find the spirit of a piece one can’t get dogmatic. It is – like in life – a constant struggle, we continuously search for new meaning and we don’t want to get stuck in routines.”
Original venues are a staple of The Knights’ performances, and their shows are often met with high profile broadcasts and press coverage. The Knights’ have been hailed as an expressive avant-garde band, and have been praised not only for their extensive collaboration efforts and cutting-edge programs, but also for their groundbreaking personalized styles in rehearsal, as well as their individualistic, highly compelling live performances.

The Knights in Central Park – Photo: New York Times

It is no wonder that their charisma has attracted numerous famed performers like Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, and Itzhak Perlman, whose undisputed high status has in turn allowed them to re-invent their outlook, and find refreshing chemistry with the young group. This mutually beneficial situation has sparked an interactive generational conversation.
In 2011, The Knights performed at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall, and in 2012, Brooklyn Rider performed there with singer/songwriter Gabriel Kahane. “Gabe lives down the block, so it became so easy to exchange ideas when he asked the quartet to perform with him in a commission with singer Shara Worden, where everyone also wrote for everyone,” says Colin. “Over time, classical music has somehow been distanced from the popular music of the day and has lost its immediate connection, but it is coming back in a very integrated way, now, with musicians like Gabe, so seamlessly.” This mission holds true for the approx. 35 musicians that make up The Knights, who are taking on upcoming projects, including participating in the execution of ‘Tempelhof Etude,’ which will reach massive, new audiences. The grand-scale installation, conceived by friend and composer Lisa Vielwa, will be based on a song cycle of ‘chance encounter’ texts overheard in random conversations at transient places. Based on the project she had originally written for The Knights, which premiered at the lower East Side in 2011, ‘Tempelhof Etude’ will follow 400-500 musicians starting at the former runway of Berlin’s Tempelhof, the site of the Berlin airlift in 1948, eventually spreading out over a few square miles of vast, empty space.
The Knights pride themselves on their open-mindedness towards new and promising projects, and the spontaneity to follow their instincts. “There are so many amazingly talented people doing so many fascinating projects, and sometimes it’s not really about doing different things, but doing them in a different way,” says Colin. He adds that in their effort to maintain quality, it was important to revitalize “Knights Camp,” which initially coined The Knights’ name. He says it, “goes back to the roots of the group, playing chamber music with our friends in our living room.”

Photo: Latest Knights’ Beethoven-Triple Concerto release by Sony January 29th, 2013
More of The Knights’ and Brooklyn Rider’s upcoming projects include “Mozart Dances” with the Mark Morris Dance Group, and a recording collaboration with virtuoso Banjo player Bela Fleck for Mercury Classics, a new label that will be released by Universal Music in April. Besides launching an artist-in-residence program with WQRX, The Knights’ have a documentary film, We Are The Knights produced by WNET/Thirteen, that has been broadcasted since 2011. For their inspired programming, innovative formats, and “crusading musical mission,” The Knights have been hailed as “the future of classical music in America” (Los Angeles Times), and soon they are heading off for a US tour with Pipa virtuoso Wu Man.
It does not seem a far-fetched proposition to connect today’s creative community of baby-boomer musicians surrounding Colin and Eric Jacobsen (who are currently renovating their own house in Brooklyn) to the artistic spirit captured by The Blue Rider in the times of Kandinsky and Schoenberg. The grassroots communal rapports of both communities have a lot in common. While for Kandinsky the color blue in the Blue Rider was a spiritual association: “The darker the blue, the more it awakens human desire for the eternal” (Kandinsky, on the Spiritual in Art, 1911), Brooklyn Rider finds its spiritual element in the ensemble’s unique, earthy vitality, irrevocably connected to the presence of their Brooklyn community.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

OMW – Original lifestyle in Music


Brooklyn has become a meeting of the minds between music and entrepreneurship. One of the big new players is Paola Prestini, who was recently highlighted in The New Yorker.  The young “composer-impresario,” whose current project is orchestrating Oceanic Verses for its European premiere at the Barbican with the BBC Symphony Orchestra this May, was recently named artistic director of Brooklyn’s forthcoming venue, Original Music Workshop.

Photo by Kevin Dolan: OMW - Williamsburg, Brooklyn  Wythe Avenue/Corner North 6th Street.

The organization’s name is less original than its space, which consists of the old shell of a late 19th century brick sawdust factory, with what will be a completely redesigned 2200 square -foot interior; the unique Williamsburg space, still only in its conceptual state, is already being hailed as a creative stronghold where music will be produced, performed, and recorded. Catering to a vibrant artistic community, but also a large-scale potential audience, the space will double as social and creative hangout, connecting its clientele with grassroots musical innovation.

While traditional venues seem to have lost much of the social connection that we associate with the arts, OMW targets a programmatic difference: It represents an approach aimed at unification of the arts, an idea established in the Gesamtkunstwerk of the early 20th century.  OMW aims to fill a void within the artistic community by establishing a resurrected tradition of social gathering in the music world.

Decades ago, cross-pollination of the social and artistic aspects of performance was a driving force behind the establishment of the creative centers of Vienna, Paris, and New York City, and now this practice has found a growing, actively engaged community in Brooklyn. OMW is feeding the entrepreneurial gap between the arts and the social scene that has become apparent to many of us involved in the music world.                                                                                     Photo by Erika Harrsch: Paola Prestini
OMW’s combination of rehearsal space, a multi-media equipped concert-hall, and a welcoming reception space (including an independently run restaurant) will bring together performers and audiences in an atmosphere that promotes social interaction, yet conforms to the highest standards of sound quality and aesthetic.  The space will encompass a vibrant scene that will enhance the experiences of new audiences as they are exposed to avant-garde music collaborations, and will allow audiences to experience classical music in a new context as well. OMW has already become an artistic community project, and perhaps even more significantly, it has become an entrepreneurial centerpiece that has brought together visionaries from all corners of the New York music community, including WQXR.
Photo by Jill Steinberg: Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung at Greene Space Music performance and recording are irrevocably connected in the music market.  Recognizing that concept, OMW plans to provide a high tech, state of the art recording studio, as well as a high acoustic quality music hall with live streaming-capability. Among OMW’s partners is Grammy award winning recording engineer Adam Abeshouse, and international tax lawyer Kevin Dolan, the project’s initial investor, who says he has been toying with a vision of the “art-factory” for a long time.  Dolan is an amateur composer and organist himself, and, clearly taken with the energy provided by the young musicians around him, he felt that the time was finally ripe to engage in this communal, non-for-profit undertaking, that will shape a fresh environment for a growing and articulate new music scene. “Music is so important, emotionally, and there is so much talent, right here! This generation is living the music. But there is no infrastructure there, which can accommodate them, let them pursue their dreams and essence,” Dolan says empathically, after the last OMW-initiated performance at the Green Space of WQXR. He is well aware of the enormous potential he is offering through this ambitious project. For example, with WQXR able to live-stream the performances in OMW’s concert hall, the featured artists will be able to reach a much larger group of listeners, which could in turn draw in a new, larger audience to the fledgling classical music scene.  This exposure will serve to augment OMW’s popularity as a performance destination for new and established artists.

The core of this project is still the wish to fulfill an immediate need: to find an attractive and affordable home for the artistic community of Brooklyn, and to keep the art at home in their borough.  Of the project and the space, Dolan says; “I collected a very talented group of young people around me and asked: How would you like to design something, so you can actually make a difference? It was a process and it established that the perfect size of an intimate setting would be 35/50, making a 50/100 ft building necessary. It had to have 100 ft. ceiling, so sound would not have to be compromised on. The club-like atmosphere shall attract a patronage of 20/30 years old   target audience, but the quality of performance will not scare away older folks, who come for the music. I call the most recent design the mozzarella cheese concert hall– but it does not really matter what I personally think of it. The notion was from the beginning, to never sacrifice the acoustics for any design purposes, but it should not be sterile; so progressive, young designers were hired to ‘get’ what will be crowd-pleasing and stimulating social interaction, inviting performers into the audience themselves to hang out, have a glass of wine and listen to the next performer.”

It certainly helps that everyone involved in this project seems to be intimately connected to music in one way or another. Peter Zuspan of the design firm BUREAU V is also a composer; he works closely with the team responsible for the design and construction of the new OMW space, and describes the design as exposed brick and concrete surrounding a faceted interior made up of a composite of perforated metal and translucent fabric.  His description is rife with eloquence and undeniable enthusiasm: “I could not be more thrilled with the pristine design, a result of architectural roughness and the most refined standards of technology. The backdrop harks back to the 18th century model of a performance hall – except here it becomes just a room, we have replaced the curtains with the actual entrance to the space, so the ceremonial aspect is there as you enter, then you are enveloped by the intimacy of the performance itself,” he explains.  The team works closely together to work through tough entrepreneurial guidelines and decisions, constantly remembering that their proximity to their favorite thing, the music, and their ability to share the music with one another, unifies their diverse planned projects in a very powerful
Photo by Jill Steinberg: Guan Riley and Luca Tarrantino at Greene Space
Prestini was an ideal choice for artistic director of the new OMW.  The reinvented project will present classical and new music in multi- dimensional interdisciplinary showcases. Like other neighboring musical muses, for example Limor Tomer, who as creative curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s innovative music series is famous for integrating her music projects into the Met’s environment, utilizing the Met to its full potential, Prestini is prepared to integrate her generation’s creative vibes into OMW while simultaneously attracting new audiences. She has already arranged for residencies of some of the most cutting- edge chamber groups including The Knights, ICE, and Talea Ensemble among others.

Paola Prestini started her own company several years ago to present her own works as vocalist and composer.  Her company, VisionIntoArt (VIA), is currently collecting funds through a Kickstarter campaign to launch its own recording label. As she recently shared with The Glass, VIA’s first releases will include: Oceanic Verses by Prestini herself featuring vocalist Helga Davis; Anna Clyne’s The Violin, featuring Cornelius Dufallo, and a CD in two parts, entitled North and Glaub, respectively by Paola’s husband, cellist Jeff Zeigler of the Kronos Quartet.  Prestini explains that this label is a natural progression for VIA, which according to her has always, “been about music and collaboration.”  She says, “it became really clear to me that there was room and space for one more recording label that was really dedicated to the kind of artists that I like to present, and to new music and multimedia. So, we’ll generally be doing multimedia releases, and I’m excited about it! I think that there’s always room for more opportunities for composers and musicians who are kind of thinking out of the box.”
Prestini allows her choices to be guided by creative sincerity, artistic vision, and a confident raw instinct that has already brought about some of the most talented musicians’ engagements in recent memory.  Her projects include traditionally classical performers, like the dynamic pianists Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung, who performed in OMW’s January preview presentation at WQXR’s Green Space. “I am a composer, so naturally I love new music, but I love all kinds of good music. If it’s curated well, classical and everything else can work together.”
Prestini’s personal approach offers something refreshing to the music business: the kind of friendship and support a life in music should be about.  She says: “With OMW, the difference from all the others is that it provides support for their artists.”
OMW plans to open its doors at the end of 2013, beginning of 2014 at the latest.  Its introduction into the local community of Brooklyn will bring about many changes at once, but it has great potential for mentoring new artists, curating, recording, and communicating the arts to the public. The shared vision of its collaborators could indeed make a difference within the music world, and change how we have been going about building an all-inclusive community. As Kevin Dolan says: “It should be a home for artists, it’s not only about virtuosity and experiment, it’s about touching our hearts.”    Photo by Jill Steinberg: Paola Prestini