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Carolina Performing Arts is doing something right. Executive and artistic director Emil Kang's tenure has been marked by quality groups from all around the world, informed by Kang's passion and commitment to listening to the greater North Carolina community. In his curtain speech at this concert, he stressed the importance CPA has of not just building relationships with artists but also maintaining them, as they have with Brooklyn Rider, whose performance with Anne Sofie von Otter on October 7th marked the ensemble's seventh appearance in Chapel Hill. This time, they brought along von Otter and the newest addition to their group, cellist Michael Nicolas.
"We thank Emil and Carolina Performing Arts for making Carolina feel like a second home," violinist Colin Jacobsen said from the stage. "We love it here."
The relationship of Brooklyn Rider with the North Carolina audience was immediately clear upon looking at the evening's program, a roster of contemporary composers ranging from Glass to Shaw to Muhly to Björk [whose last name is Guðmundsdóttir] to Kate Bush.
The program, which will be repeated at Carnegie Hall Oct. 13, was an extension of von Otter's and Brooklyn Rider's newest CD release, also entitled So Many Things, containing many of the same selections. Von Otter spoke from the stage, explaining her desire to dip into contemporary music "whether that meant contemporary classical composers or contemporary pop composers who are some of the finest composers writing today." The program, indeed, made a case for this!
Brooklyn Rider opened the concert with three selections from Phillip Glass' Suite from Bent, which proved to be an accessible introduction to more challenging works heard later in the program. The cinematic nature of these Glass selections gave way to the group's subdued expressive playing which would have perfectly accompanied images on a screen behind them should there have been one.
Von Otter joined the group for three vocal selections: an original work written by Caroline Shaw entitled "Cant voi l'aube" commissioned by Carnegie Hall; a work written by Colin Jacobsen set to short-story writer Lydia Davis' "For Sixty Cents" (and featuring a coffee cup as an instrument); and John Adams' "Am I in Your Light," from Doctor Atomic. All three propelled these artists' collaboration from singer-accompanist into a synthesized dialogue among five unique artists, one never upstaging the other at any point in time.
Tyondai Braxton's ArpRec1 then provided a quartet interlude, if a rather dizzyingly complicated one that never reached a tangible idea in its writing and proved to sound more repetitive than inventive.
Nico Muhly's song cycle So Many Things followed, displaying the composer's strength of understanding and utilizing the full range of the instruments for which he writes.
Following intermission, the quartet gave a deeply moving interpretation of Janáček's "Kreutzer Sonata" (Quartet No. 1). The interpretation was strikingly traditional compared to the modern works on the rest of the program, though the group's emotional depth and technical bravura made it a standout of the evening.
Von Otter returned to the stage, this time behind a microphone on a stand to perform arrangements of pop composers' songs. Her croon of melancholy, heard throughout Björk's "Cover Me" and "Hunter," was chilling, though it was the announced addition of Sting's "Practical Arrangement," featured on the album, that left the audience in awe of von Otter's ability to change the timbre of her voice from operatic coloratura to soulful pop to torch song so effortlessly. Effortless too was cellist Nicolas' heartfelt playing of the opening solo lines.
Von Otter's performances of Elvis Costello's "Speak Darkly My Angel" and Kate Bush's "Pi" concluded the concert, giving the audience still more reasons for the evening's standing ovation.
While some audiences may see the exploration of contemporary pop artists as the antithesis of chamber music, Brooklyn Rider and Anne Sofie von Otter force audiences to recognize that – as with pop artists who venture across genres into classical or jazz – collaborations can expand the minds of its listeners. At UNC, Brooklyn Rider and, hopefully, von Otter have found a home in CPA. Brooklyn Rider, along with von Otter, proved that these maintained relationships with artists that Kang and CPA stress so passionately are at the heart of why they keep coming back.
Note: This review originally appeared in Classical Voice North America. It is reprinted here with the author's permission.