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Two Icons, Endless Memories

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
12/05/2008 -  
Raz Mesinai: Crossfader (World premiere)
Ramalla Underground: Tashweesh (New York premiere; arranged by Jacob Garchik)
Traditional: Smyrneiko Minore (World premiere; arranged by Jacob Garchik)
Traditional: Ov Horachamin (World premiere; arranged by Judith Berkson and Jacob Garchik)
Hanna Kulenty: String Quartet No. 4 “A cradle Song” (New York premiere)
Glenn Kotche: Anomaly (New York premiere)
George Crumb: Black Angels

Kronos Quartet: David Harrington, John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (Viola), Jeffrey Zeigler (Cello) – Glenn Kotche (Percussion)
Laurence Neff (Lighting designer), Brian Mohr (Audio Engineer), Calvin Ll. Jones (Technical associate)

The Kronos Quartet (© Julien Jourdes)

No evening featuring the Kronos Quartet can ever be called a “concert” or “recital” or “program”. It is an event, an iconic event. Nor should the name Kronos ever summon up the mercenary title of “brand”. For more than 30 years, Kronos has inspired composers around the world, has defined the world of “world music”, has entranced audiences, and has returned the word music to its roots as mousike techne: the Art of the Muses.

Last night could have been called typical, since the first half produced no less than three world premieres and four New York premieres. But it was even more singular, since the second half was devoted to another iconic figure in American music, George Crumb, and the work which Kronos has almost made their own, Black Angels. Truth be told, all the works of the first half, most compose two or three years ago impressive in their own right, simply fail to match the George Crumb standards of Black Angels. Hearing the Kronos play it was kind of cosmic in itself.

Founder and first violinist David Harrington put it best some years ago: “In a lot of ways, the work that Kronos has done is a set of variations on that piece.” The work defies the spiritual and moral—not political—miasma of the Vietnam War, like Guernica defined the Spanish Civil War. But it is equally spiritual in its almost primitive theatricality, which Kronos exemplifies. The lighting alters with the music, the four players walk through the darkness of the stage or gather around eerily lit glass harmonicas. The voices are ”ancient voices”, the recalls are from Schubert (“Death and the Maiden”) or Gregorian chants. The gongs introduce us to different aeons, different musics.

And yes, Kronos uses all those—then original—tricks in the string book, to make their amplified instruments and their own amplified vocal cords, screech in astonishment or play almost sub-human cries. This is the poetry of Baudelaire without the French, the art of Goya without the bodies.

Watching it as theatre, not listening to a recording, is one of those musical miracles upon which so much subsequent music is measured. Not for its technique but for its arresting sounds arrestingly played.

The first half of the program featured the work Anomaly, by the famed drummer Glenn Kotche, who joined the Kronos. Kotche’s reputation is so enormous in the percussion world that Anomaly was doubly disappointing. It was subtle, the textures pitting drum sounds and string sounds were clever. But perhaps Kotche wanted to show that he was more than a rock genius, so it was all too artful, so very very polished. Under the patina, though, much was respectful, little grabbed the listener with the energy of either quartet or soloist.

Listening, though, to Polish composer Hanna Kluenty’s String Quartet, subtitled “A Cradle Song”, was a stunning experience. The song had been originally composed for the birth of her child, rewritten ten years later when her child had died, and now, she said, “it is a new light with a positive meaning”. The song itself was a few simple measures, but as it gradually increased in complexity, we had to feel drawn into the strings themselves, the emotions, the stellar joy within the universe of its notes.

Two traditional songs, from Smyrna (today’s Izmir, Turkey) and Bessarabia (today’s Moldavia) were short, but beautifully played. The concert began, though with Israeli and Palestinian pieces—both based on dance rhythms, both with those scales written a quarter-one apart—that did wonders for this listener. Whether this was the goal or not, the Kronos provided minutes of memories of dawn. In Libyan town squares, Yemeni villages, waking in the yard of a fortress in southern Tunisia, where the strains of Arab music came from dulled radios or hummed by the man bringing the hummus and pita bread and coffee.

The music of Kronos, memorable in itself, also had the power to evoke those memories where, in D. H. Lawrence’s line, “we weep , like children, for the past”.

Harry Rolnick



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