Looking back and forward, the Kronos Quartet marks four decades with friends

Sat Mar 29, 2014 at 2:10 pm
The Kronos Quartet performed Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

The Kronos Quartet performed Friday night at Carnegie Hall.

The heralded Kronos Quartet marked its 40th anniversary and the release of a new five-disc collection Friday night at Carnegie Hall with a little bit of pomp, a little bit of pop and a plenty of musicianship. Over two hours no less than 14 pieces were performed, including works by Laurie Anderson and Philip Glass and a Terry Riley world premiere.

The night celebrated a career not just of artistic but of marketplace determination, an aspect of the Kronos phenomenon that can’t be ignored. Beginning with the shock of Purple Haze on their 1986 self-titled debut, they made classical cool in a post-punk world, bringing such fearlessness to the work of George Crumb, Steve Reich, Henryk Górecki and Allen Ginsberg.

The new “Explorer Series” series box set, to be issued April 8 on Nonesuch, highlights an aspect of their populist tendencies, with folk and classical works from around the world. Such projects show why they’ve lasted so long and why they were playing to a packed house at Carnegie Hall fou decades after their founding.

Aheym (Homeward), composed by Bryce Dessner (a member of the Clogs who has worked with Bon Iver, Sonic Youth and Sufjan Stevens) seemed like a lot of rock strumming though the piece is not without nuance. This easily digestible setting of counterpoint demonstrates the beauty of the quartet’s group dynamic, with Dessner bowing an electric guitar and adding Robert Fripp–like tones.

The quartet (violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang) was also joined by Jherek Bischoff for the newly commissioned A Semiperfect Number. The composer appeared in bow tie and slicked hair, giving high-fives all around, with a hollow-body “violin bass” à la Paul McCartney. Standing and rocking back and forth, he hit bold chords, pinning the music into a box and then employing quick delay for spacey synth sounds. But unlike the other “rockist” piece on the program, Bischoff’s work showed more depth.

The Brooklyn Youth Chorus joined Kronos for the night’s opener, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s 2011 Bubbles – a busy display but it’s hard to fault forty whooping and ululating adolescents in a piece culminating in scripted laughter. The second half opened with members of the student ensemble Face the Music extending the group into a 20-piece string orchestra for a rather riotous Osvaldo Golijov arrangement of Severiano Briesño’s 2001 El Sinaloense.

It was not all light amusement, of course. Terry Riley’s The Serquent Risadome – commissioned by Carnegie Hall – was the first truly great work of the concert, closing the first half. The one-movement piece started off at a healthy clip and made fine use of the richness of the strings, before falling into an unexpected meditation and Classical quartet study.

Also of note were a series of arrangements by Jacob Garchik. His take on blues singer Geeshie Wiley’s Last Kind Words found a jazziness reminiscent of Bessie Smith recordings and Syrian singer Omar Souleyman’s La Sidounak Sayyada was a rousing dance employing a prerecorded rhythm track. Garchik’s arrangement of Laurie Anderson’s 2010 song Flow was beautifully serene, placid and quite lovely.

Quartet founder Harrington introduced all of the pieces and recalled being at Carnegie with Allen Ginsberg to perform Howl, doing Riley’s In C and appearing with Zakir Hussain and pipa player Wu Man in a program of Bollywood songs sung by Ashe Bhosie. Their record with Boishe put them in an unexpected support role, one they assumed again on Philip Glass’s Orion: China, another high point of the night. Man joined them on the Stern Auditorium stage, notes plucked from her pipa shooting out in brittle unamplified lines into the theater. The quartet echoed her in strong lines, halving them, and breaking into staccato against the fast repetitions of her lead line.

The program ended with three pieces from movies. Vladimir Martynov’s the Beatitudes, arranged for the quartet by the composer and featured in the film La Grande Bellezza was nicely lyrical, followed by pieces for film by Clint Mansell. Lux Aeterna from Requieum for a Dream and Death is the Road to Awe from The Fountain were performed with prerecorded backing tracks.

The last built to a surprisingly loud climax with the phantom orchestra— a questionable, but nevertheless triumphant finale. They encored, fittingly enough, with Purple Haze – loud and amplified, feedback pealing from the stage.

Kurt Gottschalk has written about jazz, classical, rock and musics in between for magazines in America, Canada, England and throughout Europe. He produces and hosts the weekly Miniature Minotaurs radio program on WFMU and has published two books of fiction.

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