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String Orchestra of Brooklyn Premieres Modern Works

by Zoë Gorman

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The String Orchestra of Brooklyn (alternately known as the SOBs, wink) is giving new flair to concert music by bringing modern compositions to the streets of New York’s fastest-growing borough. Their concert Saturday at St. Ann’s Church with the Toomai String Quintet showcased three pieces from 21st-century composers, two of which were world premieres.

The SOB rehearses once a week and welcomes musicians of all ages and all walks of life. While they may not quite be ready for Carnegie Hall, they deserve credit for providing a thought-provoking performance of innovative modern works. Artistic Director Eli Spindel’s precise, yet fluid conducting and flawless cutoffs helped the performers achieve an expressive textural variation that created the illusion of sound coming from far away.

The church, with its high central archway, long corridors, and intimate stage area provided inspiration for all three composers: the sweeping chords of Somei Satoh’s Ruika, the high, ringing violins and mechanical rhythms of Richard Carrick’s Adagios, and the long, accented strokes of Chris Cerrone’s High Windows, who placed the second violins on the opposite sides of the pulpit in order to pass melodic lines from one violin section to the other.

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Written for St. Ann's way back in 1990, Satoh's Ruika utilized evolving stepwise progressions, eerie violin timbres, and dramatic pauses for a spectral, cinematic feel. Shifting extended ternary harmonies resolved dissonances into rich chords in a gradual, yet striking fashion reminiscent of Barber. Satoh complemented slow progressions with recurring rhythmic patterns in 5/4, 4/4, and 6/4 time, stabilizing drones, and a cello solo that exhibited John Popham’s virtuosity, making brilliant use of subtle slides and vibrato, emphasizing sonority over speed. The piece took an unexpected turn with a sudden downward leap in the cellos amidst a sea of stepwise motion in the instrument’s upper register. 

Although Carrick’s piece was originally written for string quartet, the bass proved essential to the machine-like motion often centered around a drone. The orchestra’s bassists executed sliding finger techniques and bouncing bow taps with vigor. While the piece celebrated cacophonous dissonances, it maintained coherence by passing rhythms among sections and drifting to and from call-and-response segments with overlapping material.

The parts—especially the fast, short-bowed viola segments—were unpredictable, yet vaguely part of an entity, like a machine not quite working. Or, as Carrick said: "a person trying to drudge up a memory." Carrick said he was inspired to write this series in memory of his father because he noticed "adagios tend to transcend musical style."

Cerrone’s High Windows layered half steps over repeated thirds, which he called the “intervals of my life.” Rapid, futuristic arpeggios interspersed with single, accelerating bow strokes to create a dramatic opening. With birdlike trills and tremolos, the haunting violins seemed to float above a slowly moving, low counterpoint. Competing sections then evolved into a central, energetic theme and settled into melodies passed from one part to another and continued, so that the end of one became the beginning of another.

As the energy died down again, a segment of bass pizzicato on each measure’s downbeat helped to move the piece forward when repeated leaps of a third might otherwise bore the listener. Although the underlining technique of arpeggio was essential to the piece’s overall structure and tonal palette, it featured in violin at the piece’s close mostly to bolster the rhythm rather than the melody.

The SOB, which aims to make modern music accessible to a diverse audience, will take their music outside next month with a free, open performance of Terry Riley's In C at Fort Greene Park. Email incinfortgreenepark@gmail.com if you have an instrument and would like to join in. 

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