When the excellent string quartet Brooklyn Rider performed at The JAI at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in April of 2019, I was duly impressed. Their combination of astonishing technical prowess and sophisticated programming of challenging contemporary music made me eager to hear this quartet again.
Saturday in The Conrad’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Brooklyn Rider returned with vocalist Magos Herrera and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Like Brooklyn Rider’s 2019 concert, Saturday’s programming was of the highest order: stellar works by contemporary and late-20th century composers using texts by notable Spanish and Portuguese poets. And the arrangements were skillfully executed by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen, Gonzalo Grau, Diego Schissi and others.
From the opening pair of songs by Herrera, “Dreams” and “Niña” and Violeta Parra’s “Volver a los 17,” Brooklyn Rider demonstrated its finesse working with a vocalist. In addition to their deft, immaculate ensemble, the quartet’s lithe bowing, ample soft pizzicato, and use of delicate harmonics created sensitive accompaniments that supported and enhanced the varying moods of every song and text, and percussionist Kunzli matched Brooklyn Rider’s nuanced approach. In addition to Jacobsen, Brooklyn Rider includes violinist Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords, and cellist Michael Nicolas.
With a team of this caliber, I expected much more from the singer. In terms of style, Herrera proved an accomplished jazz interpreter, but her voice is surprisingly slight and monochromatic, and even though she used amplification, I strained to hear her much of the time. Her most climactic phrases barely registered a mezzo-piano dynamic level. The acoustics of the Baker-Baum Concert Hall are favorable to singers, and I have heard singers on numerous occasions command the hall comfortably without amplification.
After experiencing this fall Gabriela Lena Frank’s opera El último sueño de Frida y Diego—with a principal character based on the Mexican folk character la Llorona—it was rewarding to encounter the traditional Mexican folk song “La Llorona” on this program. Other impressive songs offered the program: Vincente Amigo’s hypnotic setting of Federico Garcia Lorca’s iconic poem “La Aurora de Nueva York” and two songs made famous by Mercedes Sosa, Silvio Rodriguez’s soaring “La Maza” and Gustavo Leguizamón’s elegiac “Balderrama.”
This concert was presented by the La Jolla Music Society on its ProtoStar Series on Saturday, May 6, 2023, at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in downtown La Jolla.