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Kronos Quartet compels Wellin with contemporary performance

By Lucas Phillips '16

November 14, 2013

On Friday, the internationally renowned Kronos Quartet performed in Wellin Hall as part of the Quartet’s 40th anniversary tour.  Among other works, the group played the recently premiered sixth Philip Glass quartet.  With the exception of Requiem for a Dream, all the pieces were written in the last five years.     

The concert began with the dramatic fast-bowed chords of “Aheym” (Homeward) by Bryce Dessner—best known as the guitarist for indie rock band The National.  The Quartet’s dry sound was a perfect match for the skittering, intense invocation of “flight and passage” as the composer described it. The rapid, rhythmically complex ensemble chords seemed about to derail at any moment.  This seemingly unsustainable energy felt like the compression of a huge expanse of time and experience into a few minutes of overwhelming drama.  The Quartet played with a fiery brilliance and when the piece ended after almost 10 minutes, many audience members let out involuntary wows.

As the lights onstage turned green, the music got trippy.  The next piece, “Death to Kosmische,” reflected Kronos’s commitment to contemporary music even at its most unusual.  The group interacted with the pre-recorded sounds that composer Nicole Lizée described as the “twisted remnants of the Kosmische style of electronic music,” which reached its peak in Germany during the late 1960s and early 1970s.  The strange sounds in the recording and the archaic relics of music technology that the quartet took turns playing, the Stylophone and the Omnichord, felt edgy and modern in the context of a quartet concert.  Combining pre-recorded electronic sounds is not uncommon for the Quartet.  The last time I saw them perform in 2009, half of their performance featured pre-recorded sounds.  Except for a few moments, when the cellist, Sunny Yang, played chords on the Omnichord and when a drum beat came in at the end of the piece, the music felt almost totally unstructured.  I had little sense of the tonal center and meter of what was being played.  In a way, this made the audience captive to the strange ambiance of the sparse dissonance of the strings. It felt somewhere in between a quirky sci-fi film and a tech gadget show.

I was most excited to hear Philip Glass’s newest string quartet, which premiered only three weeks before the concert.  The Quartet has worked closely with Glass and are the seminal performers of his quartet pieces.  The Sixth String Quartet was unmistakably Glass, but in some ways very different from his other quartet works.  The first movement was more chaotic and harder to grasp.  The main theme was obscured and the movement had the overall effect of melodies coming in and out of focus, always shifting, folding back into the mass of motivic convolutions.  Also, something I’ve practically never heard in a Glass quartet, a descending major scale came out several times during the piece.  The first movement felt much more compressed than any movement of Glass’s other quartets.  The effect, however, was gorgeous when the movement ended in the quiet character of the following movement.

The second movement was Glass quartet writing at its sparsest and most delicate.  Compared to the density of the first movement, the second sounded spacious and relaxed.  The viola, Hank Dutt, and second violin, John Sherba, shared the melody in the first part of the movement with the sensitivity that comes with 40 years of collaboration.  Kronos excelled with the delicate structure and rich, balanced ensemble chords.  Halfway through, the movement returned to the poly-melodicism of the first movement though more restrained.

I found the last movement to be much less engaging than the previous two and lacked their strong character.  It sounded more ordered than the first movement and far less open than the second, while giving less for the listener to latch onto.  The movement was something of a letdown with the new approaches that Glass took in the first two movements.  Though the sixth quartet is a significant one in the world of string quartets (as five and nine are for symphonies), I would suggest that this is not Glass’s best.

After intermission, Kronos followed with an excerpt from one its most popular recordings, the Requiem for a Dream suite from the Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film of the same name.  The shortest piece the Quartet played, at under three minutes, was Laurie Anderson’s “Flow.”  First violinist David Harrington reminded the audience of the recent death of Anderson’s husband, rock legend Lou Reed, which made the performance all the more poignant.  Arranger Jacob Garchik created a feeling of vulnerability, scoring for harmonics with mutes.  I thought it was one of the most moving performances of the night though the brevity caught the audience by surprise and there was almost no applause.

Kronos returned to the use of pre-recorded sounds in Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…” written for the Quartet.  It featured two ethnic Balkan instruments, the gusle, a bowed string instrument performed by Harrington, and the tapan, a large double-headed drum, performed by Sherba.  The work depicts the ethnic clashes between Albanians and Serbs in the composer’s native country of Serbia. It samples church bells of Serbian orthodox monasteries and an Islamic call to prayer among other sounds, including children playing, an old woman singing and clocks ticking.  It also pays tribute to the unique musical heritage that these cultures have created, which the composer describes as having a “sense of inevitability, a ritual trance with an obsessive, dark energy.”  The sound clips were fascinating and I felt that they were used more effectively than in “Death to Kosmische.”

Though not Kronos’s most daring program, it still affirmed why the Quartet has remained among the highest regarded and most important performers of innovative contemporary quartet music.

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