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GENRE BENDERS : Brahms and the Beatles, Shostakovich and Schubert Merge in Latest Album by the Brodsky Quartet

March 18, 1993|RANDY LEWIS | Randy Lewis is assistant editor of Calendar for The Times Orange County Edition.

Listen to the Brodsky Quartet's latest album and you'll hear a touch of Brahms here, a hint of Shostakovich there, a snippet of Schubert over there.

That's not unusual for this chamber group, which has performed or recorded works by all of the above in its 21-year history.

But keep listening and you'll also pick up snatches of Beatle-esque melodic charm, moody Gypsy jazz and sweeping musical theater.

Those typically segregated influences merge seamlessly in "The Juliet Letters," the Brodskys' extraordinary, genre-bending collaboration with fellow Brit Elvis Costello, the prolific, critically admired singer-songwriter.

Today in fact, they are in New York City winding up their monthlong international tour together with the final live performance of "The Juliet Letters," subtitled "a song sequence for string quartet and voice."

The collaboration with Costello, which landed them on "The Tonight Show" earlier this week, has been a horizon-expanding experience for all concerned, said Brodsky cellist Jacqueline Thomas.

Speaking by phone from Amsterdam on the European leg of the tour, she said: "We've been received wonderfully--getting standing ovations and lots of encores." Other members of the group are violinist Michael Thomas (Jacqueline's brother), violinist Ian Belton and violist Paul Cassidy. All are in their early to mid-30s.

"Oddly enough, people have stopped calling for (pre-'Juliet Letters' Costello songs such as) 'Oliver's Army,' which happened the first night. Now we are getting calls to come back out and play 'Expert Rites' or 'I Almost Had a Weakness' (from 'The Juliet Letters') again. And that's refreshing. "

No calls for the final movement of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" quartet?

"No. I should think it's because at a classical concert, audiences don't normally call for requests," she said, with an only partially suppressed laugh. "So far, we haven't gotten requests for any classical pieces" as encores.

That could change beginning Saturday, when the Brodskys head back to the West Coast--sans Costello, who is jetting back to England--for a one-week U.S. tour. On their own again, they'll be back solidly in the middle of traditional classical repertory.

Opening the four-date tour in Costa Mesa, there'll be none of "The Juliet Letters." Instead, they'll play Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8 in C-minor, Schumann's Quartet No. 3 in A and Beethoven's Quartet No. 6 in B-flat.

They've made their reputation playing and recording the cycle of Shostakovich's 15 quartets, which are heavy rowing for any quartet. The Brodskys, however, have been playing his searing music literally since they were kids.

Even though they have received glowing reviews for their Shostakovich cycle on CD and their live performance of the cycle at Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 1989, they are by no means through exploring those works.

At Saturday's performance, they will provide an opportunity to hear how those explorations have continued since the Brodskys were in the recording studio.

"Personally," Thomas said, "I would love to do (the Shostakovich Quartet) No. 8 again. Since recording it, we've changed the way we play it somewhat. I feel we've matured with it."

The program also will demonstrate their ability to go outside the works of the composer with whom they are most closely identified.

"Since we've been together, we've played a diverse repertory, from Haydn to present-day (composers). We have been identified with Shostakovich, but it's a good thing not to be too focused on one area," she said.

"All the time we've been playing other pieces, and not just as filler. Shostakovich doesn't even come into all our programs. It's nice if people recognize that."

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