Vrebalov’s powerful multimedia score highlights Kronos Quartet concert

Sun Mar 08, 2015 at 1:44 pm

Aleksandra Vrebalov’s “Beyond Zero: 1914-1918” was performed Saturday night by the Kronos Quartet at Zankel Hall.

Saturday’s audience at Zankel Hall was one of the youngest Carnegie Hall has seen this season. Whether it was the eclectic allure of the Kronos Quartet or the chic 9 p.m. start time, it was remarkable to see the number of twenty- and thirty-somethings turning out for a two-and-a-half hour concert of contemporary classical music.

To begin, Kronos unveiled On Parole by Merlijn Twaalfhoven, the most convincing of the offerings on the first half. Twaalfhoven said in his program note that he omitted bar lines at the opening to allow the performers greater interpretive freedom.The result is more one of shapeshifting nebulosity, but it’s entirely effective, presenting wailing winds from which the music begins to take shape. There is an endearing simplicity to Twaalfhoven’s musical language; the sudden appearance of a brigade of young string players from the youth contemporary ensemble Face the Music, surrounding the audience as they plucked and pecked on open strings, did not seem at all out of place.

The next item, Tenebre, might be a compelling enough work on its own, but in the context of this program Bryce Dessner’s music seemed to retread the territory already visited by On Parole. Sweet, generalized soundscapes are its primary vein, opening with soft tremolos in the higher strings while the cello listlessly pursues a crawling melody.

More generalities awaited in Dear Creator, help us return to the centre of our hearts, the second world premiere of the evening. Derek Charke’s thirty-minute quartet is, at its base, a study in textures. It’s not a piece that gets tiresome, exactly–it’s infinitely agreeable, much in the way that it doesn’t take much convincing to stay in a hot bath for a half-hour. But the piece is not particularly challenging, and its endlessly cyclical progression quickly grows predictable–hardly what one is looking for in a world premiere.

Charke was inspired by visits to the oil sands of Canada and their surrounding communities. This explains the titles he gives to various sections (“Upgrade to CO2,” “Respect Mother Earth,” “Bitumen Night Shift”) as well as the extended track of recorded industrial and natural sounds: Jackhammers, buzz saws, back-up alarms, and seagulls accompany the quartet for most of the piece’s duration.

Or rather, the quartet seems to accompany the noise track, which is often a problem when composers mix media in this way. It didn’t exactly feel as though the musicians were worried about keeping time with the track, and yet the apparently equal weight of the live and recorded elements made the whole feel static.

The sole item to come after intermission was a welcome change of pace. A New York premiere, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 sets stark music against film of the First World War. The sounds and images successfully meld into a powerful whole, but each component stands on its own merit, neither overpowering the other, except by turns.

Filmmaker Bill Morrison has recovered an impressive collection of 35mm nitrate films, most of which otherwise exist only in the original copies. Stitched into a continuous sequence, the films show the war from every angle: images flash before us of parades, newspapers, infantry charges, and aerial engagements. An engineer crawls in front of a trench, rolling out barbed wire. An officer pins a medal to a widow’s mourning dress. A mid-air collision brings a dogfight to an abrupt end. Morrison has for the most part left the films untouched, allowing the lingering distortions to lick the edges of the screen like flames.

Vrebalov’s score is just as powerful, a darkly poetic work of tremendous expressive force. She, too, interpolates recorded material, but her choices seem more thoughtful than Charke’s: Air-raid sirens, recorded speeches, barked firing orders, even Bartók’s own recording of his piano suite all feed the atmosphere of the film without distracting from the music.

But it is her writing for the quartet that makes Vrebalov’s work stand out–there is an icy distance to the sound, but at the same time her close writing feels claustrophobic, occasionally rising to an intense, suffocating fury. She writes with a keen awareness of what’s happening on screen, but does not always take the most obvious route: the painful hissing and screeching of sul ponticello playing that accompanies images of the air war gives way to absolute, eerie calm as a line of Mark V tanks rolls fearless into battle. Members of the Byzantine Chorus of Kovilj Monastery sat as silent observers for most of the work’s forty minutes, but they brought the piece to a powerful close, quietly keening as a lonely fighter plane falls from the sky.

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