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The Quantum-Leapers

New York
Zanken Hall, Carnegie Hall
02/22/2008 -  
Gary Leport: Night of the Vampire (World première)
Clint Mansell: Requiem for a Dream Suite (New York première)
Fernando Otero: El Cerezo (World première)
Aviya Kopelman: Widows and Lovers (World première)
John Adams: Fellow Traveler (World première)
Traditional Iranian (arranged by Jacob Garchik): Lullaby (New York première)
Alexandra Vrebalov: ....hold me, neighbor, in this storm…. (World première)

The Kronos Quartet: David Harrington, John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola), Jeffrey Zeigler (cello)

From their beginnings in 1973, the Kronos Quartet promised surprise and adventure in their concerts and recordings. Today, a Kronos Quartet recital is a quantum leap into another universe.

Literally, each concert is of this world. The whole of this world, from countries barely worth a footnotes in the fattest atlases. The quantum leap comes in the performance by four brilliant technician-artists who propel the music forward. Not simply for the sake of using every possible (and newly invented) techniques on their instruments. Not only in utilizing tape, white sounds offstage songs, drums, and curious instruments. But in blending colors, rhythms, harmonies, and variations on the traditional and the futuristic.

Friday’s concert was no exception. The six works represented five countries and manifold moods, which were backed up by background color patterns on the Zankel wall. (They could have represented a jigsaw puzzle of the world, or a brain or a Rosicrucian crucifix… the ambiguity was never distracting.)

Four of the six were less than seven minutes long, but they were hardly insubstantial. John Adams’ Fellow Traveler was typical for the composer. The pulse and rhythm changes were subtle, never sudden, inevitable. In a way, this was like a four-dimensional chess game, each move an atomic fraction from the other.

Night of the Vampire, recorded originally by the British band “The Moontrekkers”, was banned in the early 1960’s by the BBC as being “unsuitable for people of nervous disposition” Today, the three movements were given a chthonic reading with all the eerie sound effects provided both by tape and instruments.

Clint Mansell’s Requiem for a Dream suite was originally played by the Kronos for the film, but I remember an alto singer taking part of the viola part. This, though, was a more complex reading.

The Argentine composer Fernando Otero, in the audience, is a great jazz composer, but “The Cherry Tree”, showed off-rhythm beats and lovely solo playing.

The Iranian Lullaby was rare indeed. The only other composer I know who used Persian rhythms was Henry Cowell (We do not count “In a Persian Market”!). David Harrington used a fiddled tuned perhaps a quarter-tone lower than the other strings, and with drum beats bringing a real Persian flavor à la Kronos.

Two works commissioned by Kronos for their “Under 30” project— an innovative idea for composers under 30 to celebrate their 30th anniversary some years ago—were the most substantial works.

The Russian-born Aviya Kopelman is well known in Israel, where she is a citizen. Her enigmatically titled Widows and Lovers is not what it seems. The “widows” to a type of rare marijuana and the black widow spider. But the combination of electronic noises (of a nightclub?) and the amplified strings were both electric and moody. Through it all were Hebraic themes and a very Semitic beat. Yet, neither was dominant: they were all part of the changes of emotions. A second reading is necessary.

To this listener, though, a work as contemporary as yesterday—literally—was ….hold me, neighbor, in this storm…… by the Serbian-born Aleksandra Vrebalov. I have lived in both Serbia and Albania, and the seven-century hatred of these peoples is unbounded.

One need only look at the headlines today about burning and shooting in these republics to have any idea of the abhorrence they feel for each other. And yet, musically, Ms. Vrebalov has tried to show here, not only this odious situation, but also added black humor.

The sounds offstage are of the bells of a Serbian Orthodox monastery and Islam chanting. The sounds of the Quartet, with a Serbian drum (and some marvelous klezmer playing by Harrington) were compelling. But then came a moment of ersatz Gypsy joy—followed by doom-like chords on the instruments. (If both Serbs and Albanians share anything, it is their hatred of the “Romi” gypsies.)

There was a Balkan sadness here, yet through the electric and eclectic Kronos Quartet, we could once again travel through that parallel universe which they unfailingly generate.

Harry Rolnick



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