Almost four decades ago, violinist David Harrington heard a performance of George Crumb’s Black Angels, decided that the Kronos Quartet would no longer devote itself to playing the work of 19th-century Viennese men and altered his generation’s expectations of chamber music. Since the 1980s, the Kronos has devoted itself to the music of its own era and the recent past, embraced electronics and increasingly infused its repertoire with elements of music from other cultures. The Crumb, a scorching response to the Vietnam war, inspired both the quartet’s political sensitivity and the theatrical element that pervades their concerts.
Last week, to inaugurate a three-year relationship with this city’s most adventurous arts complex, the quartet revived the piece in a new production and, with it, reawakened the anxiety and despair of that woeful conflict. The players fiddle, wander the stage, strike gongs, shake maracas and, in the piece’s most haunting episode, three of the musicians on illuminated platforms bow crystal goblets, while the cellist intones a lamenting solo. The years have not muted the quartet’s buzzing attacks in the famous “Night of the Electric Insects” section. Black Angels disturbs still.
The programme opened with the premiere of Sahba Aminikia’s String Quartet No. 3: A Threnody for Those Who Remained, one of more than 600 Kronos commissions. The Iranian-born composer grieves for his father and the protesters whose voices were suppressed after the 2009 election in his homeland. Recorded sounds of a lamentation ceremony, a call to arms and the Tehran uprising accompany the players, whose melodies gather considerable force. It’s not an experience easily forgotten.
A revival of Bob Ostertag’s All The Rage (1992) juxtaposes the sounds of a gay rights riot, a poignant narration and musical substance generated by the inflections of the recorded material. The Kronos offered two contemplative works, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Spell No. 4, For a Changing World and Ingram Marshall’s Fog Tropes II. She incorporates recorded percussion and choral fragments into the string texture. He leavens his work with recorded fog horns and Balinese flute sounds, and the effect is evocative and arresting. The players’ muted virtuosity captivated. () www.kronosquartet.org