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Open Your Ears

New York
Sony Music Studios
10/21/1998 -  
P.Q. Phan: Tragedy at the Opera
Foye Msususo: Tillaboyo
Hildegard von Bingen: O Vertus Sapienti
Carlos Paredis: Verdis Annos
Hamsa El Din: Aescalai
John Zorn: From Cat O' Nine Tails
Raymond Scott: Dinner Music for a Pack of Hungry Cannibals
Steve Reich: America-Before the War
Harry Partch: Two Studies on Ancient Greek Scales
Tan Dun: From Ghost Opera
Gabriela Ortiz: From Altar de Muertos
Astor Piazzolla: Four For Tango
Jimi Hendrix: Purple Haze

Kronos Quartet: David Harrington (violin), John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), Joan Jeanrenaud (cello) with Hamsa El Din (tar) and Wu Man (pi' pa)

The musical world is so vast and we only live in one small corner of it. Both geographically and temporally the Kronos took a group of invited guests on an exciting musical journey last night at the Sony Studios on West 54th Street. This amazing group of extremely committed musicians has been exploring the remote corners of the classical repertoire for over ten years and always brings a strong sense of dedication and aesthetic integrity to their performances. It is rare that one likes all of the pieces at a Kronos concert, but it is even more unusual not to be both challenged and duly impressed and to leave the hall eager to explore these musical byways oneself. Last night's concert featured music from around the globe and began with a piece from Vietnam. Tragedy at the Opera evoked an unnamed conflagration, similar in feeling to the corresponding section of Schoenberg's Begleitungsmusik, with the addition of quotes from Southeast Asian opera. Foye Msususo's almost exclusively pizzicato work, translated as "Sunset", was a calm description of a Gambian night featuring raps of rhythm by fists on instrument bodies.

The von Bingen work was pure rapture. For those who are still skeptical about the solid musicianship of the Kronos this piece was a powerful antidote. Sonically the blending of the four instruments was superb and viscerally the otherworldly nature of the abbess' music was highly convincing. Music of the twelfth century sounded perfectly fitting in a concert of late twentieth century spiritual explorations. The work of the Portuguese composer Verdis was pleasing, but in a travel jingle sort of way. Hamsa El Din joined the quartet for a sensitive performance of his Aescalai and his dignified style of play upon the tar, a large tambourine without the metallic attachments, exhibited a surprising variety of pitches and timbres. The work featured an extended and flowing viola solo played lovingly by Mr. Dutt.

There followed a set of contemporary American fare. John Zorn has become a major figure in the modern arena (due in no small part to Kronos) and the section of Cat O' Nine Tails that was performed (a sort of Holiday for Strings on amphetamines) was frenetic. The Scott piece was similarly hyperenergetic and made considerable demands of intonation and dexterity. This quartet is up to the daunting task and leaves the listener with the impression that the music is perfect for their individual talents (indeed some of these scores were written specifically for them). Special mention should be given to Ms. Jeanrenaud who attacks her cello as if it were a percussion instrument, much in the manner of Rostropovich.

Take any four measures of Honegger's Pacific 231, repeat them ad nauseam, add a tape recording of the same measures played seemingly interminably by the same string quartet, sprinkle in a few train announcements and voila, you too are a minimalist! I have heard all of the arguments and seen all of the musical pedigrees (I don't care that this is supposed to be based on Balinese gamelan), I just feel that the music of Reich and his ilk is all shallow and manipulative and no more creative than a monotone reading of the telephone book (half an hour with some competent musical software and anyone can produce the equivalent). Diametrically opposed in intellectual content, however, was the rich music of Harry Partch, a mournfully neglected American genius. The two pieces were fascinating exercises on forgotten harmonic systems and the entire archaeological effort of last night's labors would have been well spent if it had only unearthed these important artifacts. The Tan Dun was most interesting for the expert pi' pa performance of Wu Man but the music was typical Hollywood and characteristic of Dun's popularizing style. Much more intense was the music of Gabriela Ortiz who was in attendance. The section of her quartet was a whirlwind of activity and genuinely exciting, leaving the listener expectant to hear the entire piece someday performed by this remarkable ensemble. The Piazzolla was written for Kronos and lest the title lull one into thinking that this is just another erotic tango the piece is actually a marvelously dissonant and insidious dance, reminiscent in its sardonic humor to Cinderella's Happiness Theme from the Waltz Suite by Prokofieff.

Heroin had at least one positive effect upon Jimi Hendrix. His early death allowed the musical world to facilitate his apotheosis before the onset of inevitable middle-aged decrepitude. Purple Haze is an anthem of sorts for Kronos and they magically recreate the plugged-in and amplified effects of Mr. Hendrix' polytonal ornamentation with only four unenhanced classical stringed instruments. It is an electrifying (sorry) three minutes of highly emotional music making.

The concert was taped for television which accounts for its episodic nature. It will be aired by PBS on "Sessions at West 54th" in the near future. Check your local listings.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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