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Concert review

Kronos Quartet and young players build bridges at Merkin Hall

Fri Oct 22, 2021 at 2:14 pm
The Kronos Quartet performed three world premieres Thursday night at Merkin Hall. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

If Joseph Haydn was the intrepid explorer who discovered the string quartet, then Kronos Quartet is the group that made that metaphor real. In its 45-year career, Kronos has literally traveled the world in search of new musical horizons for its four-instrument medium.

Fruits of that journey were on display Thursday night at Merkin Concert Hall, as Kronos and younger string-playing friends tickled listeners’ ears with new compositions whose roots reached from South Carolina to East Java. Three of the works were receiving their world premieres.

All were products of Kronos’s ambitious commissioning and education program “50 for the Future,” aimed at creating a world-tinted repertoire that helps quartet players develop advanced skills.

Thursday’s concert was co-presented by Kaufman Music Center and Montclair State University’s John J. Cali School of Music, as part of their future-oriented performance series titled “Bridges.”  The young musicians who participated came from the Special Music School (a K-12 public school with music at its core, operated by Kaufman) and Montclair State’s music program.

An accomplished foursome from the Special Music School—Rebecca Beato and Isabella Espana, violins; Jesse Schopflocher, viola; and Griffin Frost, cello—began the evening with Charlton Singleton’s Testimony. Inspired, the composer wrote, by “prayer bands” who made music with voices, hands and feet in South Carolina’s black churches, the piece opened with a wistful melody, then laid down a strong beat that led to some actual stomping and clapping before finishing up with a strutting tune. The young players’ intonation and blend—and stomping—were at a professional level.

Next, the Kodak Quartet, graduate artists-in-residence at Montclair State, performed Trey Spruance’s Séraphîta, a piece with a North African flavor inspired by Balzac’s metaphysical novel of the same name. (As for the ensemble’s name, it might suggest musical tourism à la Kronos, but in fact refers to Kodak Hall at the players’ alma mater, Eastman School of Music.)

In the work’s three movements, the Kodak musicians—Edgar Donati and Martin Noh, violins; Daniel Spink, viola; and Blake Kitayama, cello—floated a soulful melody with sonorous chords, negotiated an intricate pizzicato scherzo while accompanying themselves with ankle bells, and danced vigorously to the beat of a slapped and tapped cello.

Finally the Kronos Quartet itself—David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; and Sunny Yang, cello—came onstage, to enthusiastic applause, and performed five pieces, beginning with the world premiere of Peni Candra Rini’s Maduswara, a gamelan piece arranged for string quartet by Jacob Garchik.

In a program note, the composer said she wrote the piece to counteract the inroads of social media and celebrity culture on classical Javanese music, specifically the role of female singers. Over a soft drone of recorded nature sounds, a sinuous melody wound through the quartet, until ostinato figures met in microtonal dissonances, and players struck small gongs in the piece’s jangling climax.

Sounds and rhythms of nature and human activity also inspired branching patterns by inti figgis-vizueta. This expressive, world-premiere performance shimmered with tremolo and rapid string-crossing, an urgent passage of bow-bouncing spiccato, and a sprinkle of pizzicato to close.

“Vertebrae are to a spine as notes are to a scale,” wrote composer Sky Macklay, and her piece Vertebrae was indeed full of scales chromatic and diatonic, sometimes in dissonant collision, sometimes drifting up and down, sometimes driven by a syncopated beat.

Aruna Narayan’s Mishra Pilu, in its world premiere, followed the North Indian classical form of a languid melody unfolding over a drone (recorded in this performance) followed by a dance of ever-increasing frenzy.

The composer is the daughter of India’s first virtuoso of the sarangi, a bowed instrument previously used mainly in accompaniments, as the cello was before the mid-1700s. Not surprisingly, the cello figured prominently in this work (arranged for quartet by Reena Esmail), singing boldly and driving the up-tempo sections with percussive string-tapping and pizzicato.

A more contemporary pioneer is electronic/club music producer Jlin, credited with popularizing the dance genre known as footwork. She keeps, she says, a notebook handy to write down musical ideas, the eponymous hero of her Kronos-commissioned piece Little Black Book. As she tells it, her aesthetic of complete freedom extends to performers as well: “I love that Kronos [with arranger Garchik] decided to play this track as they deemed fit versus trying to follow what I did.”

The Kronos-Garchik version opened with echoes of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score in driving ostinatos over harsh chords, then rattled some Halloween skeletons with col legno playing while cellist Yang simultaneously played her instrument and pedal-thumped a big drum.

Flaming youth gave way to mellow age in the program’s closer, Philip Glass’s 2017 piece Quartet Satz, performed here by Kronos augmented by the Special Music School Quartet heard earlier and by twelve student string players from Montclair State. This single Satz (movement) offered a compendium of trademark Glass gestures—rocking figures in the middle parts, keening long notes, languid three-against-four rhythms, ascending and descending scales—all woven into a sonorous tapestry of shifting colors.

And so many a bridge was built Thursday night, between generations and into the future.

The next event in the “Bridges” series will be electro-acoustic violist Trevor New in an interactive, multimedia performance using sounds from the in-person and virtual audience, 7:30 p.m. Nov. 20 at Merkin Concert Hall. kaufmanmusiccenter.org; 212-501-3330.

Calendar

October 25

Jupiter Symphony Chamber Players 
Franz Berwald: Quartet in E-flat Major, […]


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