John Frayne: Kronos Quartet was a treat for the senses
The Kronos Quartet is a study in contrasts. Playing in a darkened Tryon Festival Theater, this quartet is unusual in bringing along an audio engineer and a lighting supervisor. Hence, their performances involve sight as well as sound, and frequently have a highly theatrical dimension. On the other hand, this group plays sometimes very challenging contemporary music that requires much explanation and commentary.
In their March 19 concert, eight pieces were played, only one of which could be considered a classic. These eight pieces were explained in seven pages of densely written prose that would require considerable time to absorb on an often rarefied plane. The result is a concert that resembles both a rock concert and a graduate seminar. Unlike Kronos concerts I have attended in the past when one wondered which new piece was being played, violinist David Harrington, after the opening piece, introduced each work for the rest of the concert in a relaxed intimate manner. The other members of the Kronos ensemble are John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola) and Sunny Yang (cello).
Canadian composer Nicole Lizee's "Death to Kosmische," which opened the concert, apparently evoked the memories of a German rock label and style named "Kosmische." The music involved a mixture of sounds. In this piece, members of the quartet also played, aside from their usual instruments, electronic instruments, one of which produced simple, sweet melodies resembling the zither. The result was a pleasing mixture of the far out and the down-home.
The second work on the program was an arrangement of the recording made in 1913 by famous cantor Alter Yechiel Karniol of a passage beginning "Sim Sholom," which is the final blessing of the Jewish weekday synagogue service. The latest musician to join the Kronos is cellist Sunny Yang, and the arrangement by Judith Berkson of this sad, lamenting music drew from Ms. Yang powerful and moving playing on her cello.
The Kronos famously specialize in contemporary music, but their exception on the March 19 concert was Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov's arrangement for string quartet of Richard Wagner's famous Prelude to his opera "Tristan and Isolde." This is very great music, and the Kronos playing of this arrangement for string quartet brought out much of the profound yearning of this work. But four string players cannot quite match the powerful climax a full symphony orchestra can achieve. This version was based on Wagner's own concert arrangement, which ended the Prelude with some of the music of Isolde's "Love death."
The first part of the concert ended with the String Quartet No. 3 of the Russian composer Valentine Silvestrov (born 1937). Silvestrov's seven-movement piece was for me the most enjoyable of the contemporary pieces on the program. This piece contrasted long stretches of reflective, sweet music with astringent outbursts. With the music more or less played continuously, I soon got lost but enjoyed following Silvestrov's deeply emotive wanderings.
The Kronos Quartet is nothing if not inclusive. The second half of the concert juxtaposed three short pieces, the first an arrangement of a song titled "Yo Soy Llanero" by Argentine singer Orlando "Cholo" Valderrama. The second piece was an arrangement of a traditional song from Vietnam sung by Kim Sinh that translates as "The Delta of the Great River," and the third was an arrangement of a song recorded by Mississippi blues singer Geeshie Wiley, "Last Kind Words." These pieces afforded relaxed pleasures after the more experimental works.
The quartet then went on to Philip Glass' "String Quartet No. 6," a work commissioned by a number of organizations, among them the UI for the Kronos Quartet, which has championed and recorded all of the first five Glass quartets. This work had its world premiere in Vancouver on Oct. 19 of last year. In his notes to this work, Glass describes it as "post-minimalist" and firmly tonal. From the very opening measures this music is instantly recognizable as Philip Glass. The signature ostinato patterns of arpeggios begin early on and continue throughout. The music has the virtues of clarity. Glass proceeds by repeated phrases up to recognizable climaxes, and when the music changes mood and structural direction, you know that. This seems to be rather austere music, attempting a serious statement, without heart on sleeve. The Kronos Quartet played it with devoted concentration.
The audience, which had been most enthusiastic all evening, howled with delight after the Glass Quartet, and stood in appreciation. Two encores followed: a reflective piece titled "A Thousand Thoughts," and Raymond Scott's frenetic "Powerhouse," which brought the audience members to their feet a second time. "Powerhouse" is famous for its use in many Warner Brothers cartoons as "assembly line music."
Correction: In my review, March 27, of "The Mikado," the singer of the role of Yum-Yum should have been listed as "Yvonne Gonzales Redman."
John Frayne hosts "Classics of the Phonograph" on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.