December 10, 2013 6:07 pm

Kronos Quartet, Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, US – review

The groundbreaking quartet celebrated its 40th birthday with a typically collaborative programme
The Kronos Quartet©Jay Blakesberg

The Kronos Quartet

It is reasonable to expect a musical organisation to celebrate its 40th birthday by reviving the music that inspired its genesis. Back at its home base on Saturday, the Kronos Quartet marked the occasion by reprising George Crumb’s searing anti-war essay, Black Angels. This 1970 opus conjures a natural world spinning out of balance. How the Kronos first responded to the work’s performance process generated a theatrical, ecumenical approach to string quartet playing. The result has been a four-decade legacy that has included the commissioning of more than 800 pieces.

American chamber music performance has not been the same since founder David Harrington adopted an all-contemporary diet. This is a remarkably cohesive ensemble: there have been only three turnovers of personnel (all in the cello chair) in the past 35 years. Crumb asks his string players to become percussionists, vocalists and experts on the musical glasses and ultimately to find a healing consolation in a universe of unrelieved dissonance. This performance seemed bathed in recollected anguish.

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The Kronos has also fostered an aesthetic of collaboration with disparate musicians, so that the quartet itself has become one element in a grand design. The concert opened with minimalist icon Terry Riley’s devout Another Secret eQuation, during which two youth choirs braid a rich harmonic texture around the string players, adorning their vocal line with yelps and screams, a memorial to a departed colleague. Then, the great pipa virtuosa, Wu Man, joined the group for the Chinese section of Philip Glass’s Orion, a shimmering essay in which the soloist weaves a filigree line around her colleagues.

The Kronos early on exhibited a fascination with world music. Here, in what was called a preview, they introduced the Trio Da Kali from western Mali. The combination of voice, 22-key balafon and bass ngoni (a string instrument) and modern strings rendered an arrangement of a love song, Tita, that, for all its reiterated thematic material, proved a bewitching experience.

The quartet’s forays into pop music have been more controversial. Here, in a celebratory mood, guitarist Bryce Dessner soloed in a portion of his Aheym, while “A Semiperfect Number” brought bass guitarist Jherek Bischoff into the mix. Nothing profound here, but the joint rocked for a few minutes.


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