Brooklyn Rider's Pittsburgh debut on Thursday evening was all about the traditional, featuring folk songs and compositions inspired by them. But the string quartet's concert was far from conventional.
Fresh off its latest album, "A Walking Fire," Brooklyn Rider played music from Hungary, Romania and Persia, although Pittsburghers needed to travel only as far as East Liberty's Kelly Strayhorn Theater to hear it. The concert was the second of three in the Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society's first-ever "Just Summer" series, which aims to bring nonclassical chamber music to neighborhoods that don't see too many string quartets.
Hailing from its titular borough, Brooklyn Rider has a bit of a shtick, making it just right for Just Summer. The group -- violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen -- is known for making a 21st-century update to the string quartet. Dressed in business casual attire (e.g., a T-shirt under a sports jacket or black jeans), they gave introductions to their pieces and stood up while playing (except for the cellist). These adjustments created a friendlier atmosphere than you'll find at your stereotypical string quartet concert.
The group was most impressive when its members brought their well-reputed energy to the pieces and when the music emerged organically from their instruments. The concert began with a contemporary work, "Culai," by Lev "Ljova" Zhurbin. The ensemble played skillfully, but the piece only really picked up in the fourth movement, "Love Potion, Expired," a swerving, dancelike number that sent a charge through the group. That zest carried into the next piece, a traditional Romanian "doina" or lament, which offered some of the evening's most striking textures -- bent notes, viscous as molasses, from the cello; gritty lows from the viola and cello; hauntingly controlled highs from the violins.
Bartok's String Quartet No. 2 followed. The piece integrates the dissonance typical of experimental 20th-century classical music with the lopsided meters and singular melodic lines common in several branches of folk music. In the years leading to World War I, Bartok traveled throughout Europe and North Africa to record folk music, later incorporating it into this and other works. The musicians seamlessly tossed phrases between each other during the high-octane second movement, producing a rapid dialogue. As in the Zhurbin, however, certain parts of the piece were more caffeinated than others.
The concert ended with "Three Miniatures for String Quartet," a piece written by Mr. Jacobsen and influenced by the violinist's collaborations with Persian spiked fiddle player Kayhan Kalhor. Brooklyn Rider was most authentic here and clearly benefited from having the composer lead the charge. The group showed off its flexibility, offering dreamy bowing from the violins, frothy gurgling from the cello and a passionately rendered solo from Mr. Gandelsman.
The musicians were not helped by the acoustics of the Kelly Strayhorn, which did not support a warm sound from the instruments.
Brooklyn Rider was best when it executed the things that most chamber groups aim for: sounding like one machine, one conversation. While the group -- and Just Summer -- represents an important effort to bring a new edge to chamber music, as Thursday's concert showed, some traditions are worth keeping.
Elizabeth Bloom: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1750 or on Twitter @BloomPG.