Review: The Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet, now more than 40 years old and regular visitors here, still has the ability to captivate. If the group’s capacity to surprise the veteran listener has diminished through familiarity, its latest concert, Saturday (Jan. 21) at the Musco Center for the Arts, by any measure, was strong and flavorful.

The program, in part, introduced to local audiences two new pieces in the ensemble’s Fifty for the Future project. The music therein is meant for gifted amateur or young pre-professional quartets and designed to teach them various modernistic techniques that they would need to play music of the 21st century. It is music in the tradition of Hindemith’s Gebrauchsmusik (music for use) and a very good idea, as so much contemporary music is too difficult to play for inexperienced players. (The Philharmonic Society of Orange County, presenters here, were commissioning partners for the two pieces and longtime supporters Don and Karen Evarts were the underwriters.) What’s more, the scores and parts necessary for playing the Fifty for the Future works are available to download for free from the Kronos Quartet’s website.

The first of the two pieces, Nicole Lizée’s “Another Living Soul” required the musicians to play other instruments in addition to their strings, including a pair of whistling tubes, some contraptions called gravity bows (they squeaked) and desk bells (played with the feet). The composer managed to incorporate them fluently, forging a brief toy string quartet.

Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013 ©Jay Blakesberg

One suspects the second piece, Tanya Tagaq’s “Sivunittinni,” would be more problematic for young musicians (at least aesthetically), the players called to harshly scrape their bows on the strings, creating multiphonic sounds presumably in imitation of Inuit throat singing. Nevertheless, once a listener had adjusted to the sound world, the piece made perfect narrative sense.

The members of Kronos Quartet— David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello — played everything thrown at them with the same deadpan ease. As is its custom, the group performed amplified, but distortion or lack of clarity was seldom an issue. The Musco, with portable proscenium and background curtain in place, proved acoustically amenable.

The members of Kronos — David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello — played everything thrown at them with the same deadpan ease.

The rest of the program featured music from far and wide, some arrangements, some original compositions, many performed in sync with pre-recorded tracks. These included the percussive Congolese number “Kule Kule” by the group Konono No. 1; a sonically expansive suite from Clint Mansell’s score to the film “Requiem for a Dream”; a fractured reimagining of blues musician Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” by Steven Mackey; the exuberant “La Sidounak Sayyada” by Syrian Omar Souleyman; and the rapturous folk song “Groung” by Komitas.

In this context, Terry Riley’s “Good Medicine,” the finale of his 1986 “Salome Dances for Peace,” seemed like an old friend, its convoluted minimalism whirring cheerfully.

Despite warnings of high decibel levels and the sounds of warfare, the concert finale, Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “Bombs of Beirut” proved genuinely affecting rather than merely unpleasant. On a prerecorded track, voices recall the travails of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) as the musicians underpin mood and drama, fading out for a blistering sequence of taped bombs, missiles and gunfire, before providing epilogue. It was the string quartet as documentary, simply and honestly done.

My only complaint, not to be dismissed in a concert of this type: The program notes were too long and mostly unhelpful.  The lovely encore was an arrangement of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” one of Billie Holiday’s hits.

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Timothy Mangan
Timothy Mangan

Timothy Mangan served as The Orange County Register’s classical music critic from 1998-2016 and no longer looks likes his picture. He is a contributor to Opera News and The Los Angeles Times, and he has also written for The Baltimore Sun, The Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Musical America and Gramophone, among other publications. In 1999 he won an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his writing on classical music. He is co-editor of Paul Bowles on Music, published by the University of California Press. He resides in Mission Viejo splendor with a wife, a son, loud neighbors and new air-conditioning. You can read more of Timothy's work on his blog Classical Life

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