Monday, March 11
To see Kronos Quartet (finally!) 40 years after the group was formed is to witness an ensemble committed to the redefinition of chamber music; this fiercely experimental quartet can play it straight – very straight – as the three curtain-calls showed, offering Greek folk song, Chinese courting music and a beautiful Swedish composition that shows you only need a small handful of notes when the notes are right and the approach is correct.
But it’s about the journey, so to get to those three straight, beautiful pieces – the breadth of them enough to impress given the understanding the musicians show to the culture of each piece extending out beyond the notes on the page, we are first taken through parts of Syria, India, New Zealand, the former Yugoslavia and America. The members of the quartet journey away from their primary instruments too, offering percussion, sound effects, autoharp and electronics at various moments.
Highlights of the first set included the opening trio of La Sidounak Sayyada (Omar Souleyman), Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap (Ram Narayan) and Death to Koshmische (Nicole Lizee). All three pieces take the traditional role of the chamber quartet and extrapolate, and to achieve the textures, space and feel of these pieces the members of the quartet also take the traditional roles and subvert: David Harrington (violin) is the calm leader, a pace car rather than the first violinist blazing ahead, Jeffrey Zeigler (cello) is the hypnotic bass player of this “rock’n’roll string quartet”. His nimble hands spend the evening courting, locked in a dance where they eye each other from across the room; at opposite ends of the cello’s neck working separately to create a sound together, no deeply mournful sawing sorrow, the nimble sonic still anchors the group. Hank Dutt (viola) is the workhorse and John Sherba (violin) plays second fiddle, as it were, but only in the sense that he alternates his support for first violin and violin, a bridge between the two, conduit for their shared communication.
If the first set offered plenty of glimpses of magic – with just enough dazzle – the second set was a tour-de-force. A jaw-dropper.
Beginning with Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, now a signature piece for Kronos, the quartet presented a radio-play live on stage, voices of survivors and witnesses from America’s dark day seemingly issued from the strings as the cello and viola provided a song of despair to accompany the found sounds; the musicians now actors presenting the source material, music and voices so tightly coiled as to blur the lines between where one started and the other finished.
Reich’s piece is a marvel, imagine Terry Riley and Laurie Anderson together with John Zorn looming.
Another of the effortless skills of Kronos Quartet is to appear like DJs for modern classical music – part of the magic in the selection; serving the songs, supporting the composers – we hear the space and sonic of the band’s film score work at several moments, so there is always their distinctive touch.
The final piece, …hold me, neighbor, In this storm… by Aleksandra Vrebalov, a Balkan folk hymn incorporating aspects of religious and secular musics in its tribal stomp and sense of ceremony, was a stunning finale.
Part of the magic of Kronos Quartet, for me, is the deft understanding – and use – of tension, in the playing, in the themes within the pieces. Tonight there was a calmness is offering this tension, the inaccessible made accessible, so many different vestiges of so many musics made remarkable.