Through chamber repetoire, string quartet Brooklyn Rider spark climate conversation

Brooklyn Rider

Sarah Russo
Staff writer

During the pandemic, like the rest of the world, Brooklyn Rider met on Zoom. The group used the time to play together and dream up new projects. During one of those sessions, the members of the string quartet began to ask a very important question: What is the world going to be focused on in the future? 

Climate change and the stewardship of  the planet surfaced as their answer, and soon “The Four Elements” was created. In partnership with the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative, Brooklyn Rider will take the stage as part of the Chautauqua Chamber Music’s Guest Artist Series at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall. 

“Music sometimes could change the world in really unexpected ways,” said Brooklyn Rider violist Nicholas Cords. “And if it’s just a matter of the people in the room gathered around an idea, I think that’s justification enough for what we do.”

In addition to Cords, the ensemble is comprised of Johnny Gandelsman on violin, Colin Jacobsen on violin and Michael Nicolas on cello. For their more-than 15 years of collaboration, the group has created more than a dozen projects with careful selections and theming. 

While he understands that this project can’t solve climate change, Cords said he hopes it will begin a conversation. 

“We wanted to do something that was going to celebrate the planet that we live on,” Cords said. “Its beauty, its mystery.  (We) also wanted to do something that was trying to point the way towards the future and have a program that is based on listening and conversation.” 

“The Four Elements” abbreviated program will feature pieces representing earth, air, fire and water. 

Cords said the pieces the group chose were either based on symbolism and emotions, the history of a composer, the time period when the piece was written, or the feelings associated with the piece.

Even with a small group featuring only two violins, one viola and one cello, the messages in the music are clear.

“What’s special about this program at Chautauqua is that it’s a quartet only, so it’s quite intimate,” Cords said. “How expansive can we create? What kind of expansive world can we create with a string quartet where we’re never in the same place twice in a program, so that it really makes a journey from beginning to end? I think with the collection of pieces that we’re playing, I think we will be able to do that.”

For the piece representing earth, Brooklyn Rider will perform “Short While to Be Here” based on American traditional folk songs collected by Ruth Crawford Seeger and arranged by Jacobsen. Each of Seeger’s folk songs are in some way about animals.

“It’s … a celebration of those traditional tunes,” Cords said. “But in Colin’s hands it becomes a totally different piece.” 

The original program includes “Tenebrae” by Argentinian composer Osvaldo Goliath and is used to represent water; however, for the program at Chautauqua, Brooklyn Rider has included a collaboration with pianist and composer Conrad Tao.

Inspired by rising sea levels, Tao composed a piece referencing mythical wave spirit Undine. Through the music, Tao imagines how a modern version of Udine has influenced the changing way of life for people affected by the rising sea. 

Cords called Tao’s musical language “really gorgeous,” creating the “perfect” piece for water. 

To represent air, Brooklyn Rider sought out Andrea Pinto Correa, a young Portuguese composer. Her piece is inspired by dust storms from the Sahara Desert affecting her country, including the shifting of sand particles around the globe with climate change playing a role in how the storms are changing.

Collaborators, like Pinto Correa, are “always bringing something to the table that expands the (group’s) creative and expressive possibilities,” Cords said.

For the final element, fire, Brooklyn Rider chose Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. The group incorporated a post-World War II, potentially familiar piece “because the last hundred years has been such an accelerator of issues related to climate,” Cords said.

After the performance, the audience is invited to participate in a conversation including insights from Mark Wenzler, director of Chautauqua’s Climate Change Initiative.

“When we’re talking about something so big, so overarching, music is actually the perfect container for that because (it) contains multitudes,” Cords said. “Then to actually have a conversation with the audience afterward. Chautauqua is exactly that place for thoughtful dialogue. We have no illusion that what we’re doing is trying to solve this topic, but if it engenders a good, thoughtful conversation, I think that’s a win.” 


The author Sarah Russo

Sarah Russo is a senior at Syracuse University studying broadcast and digital journalism. At Syracuse, she reports and hosts for CitrusTV and writes for The Daily Orange and Baked Magazine. Sarah also interned at the National Comedy Center last summer. When she’s not reporting, she enjoys being outside biking, swimming or reading. As a Chautauqua County native, Sarah is excited to work in a place close to home and her heart this summer. She will be covering the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra and the Chautauqua Chamber Music Guest Artist Series.