Emotion of the Sixties recollected in tranquility by Kronos Quartet

Sat Jan 20, 2018 at 3:30 pm
The Kronos Quartet performed Friday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

The Kronos Quartet performed Friday night at Zankel Hall. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

 When the title of Carnegie Hall’s annual festival is “The ‘60s: The Years that Changed America” and the headline act is the group that changed the way America thinks about string quartets, some fireworks are to be expected. 

The Kronos Quartet obliged Friday night in Carnegie’s Zankel Hall with passionate echoes of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Everly Brothers. But the prevailing mood of the evening, and of the two new works that received their world premieres, was surprisingly calm and reflective.

The performance was like a set in a club, a continuous 90-minute affair during which the performers moved from piece to piece amid shifting mood lighting, interrupted only occasionally by brief applause.

The stage lights were bumped up to full only twice, so the audience could get a look at composers Stacy Garrop and Zachary James Watkins as they acknowledged the applause for their new pieces, both of which had been commissioned by Carnegie Hall for this occasion.

Coincidentally (or maybe not), both new works were inspired by, and included in the piece, oral-history recordings with leading figures of the civil rights movement. In Garrop’s Glorious Mahalia, snatches of conversation between writer and radio host “Studs” Terkel and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson drifted through the piece’s five concise movements.

Watkins’s Peace Be Till placed the recorded reminiscences and commentary of Clarence B. Jones, advisor and sometime speechwriter of Martin Luther King Jr., in the foreground for much of its length.

Using no string-playing techniques more radical than the occasional harmonics, Garrop and Watkins gave fresh expression to some fairly familiar observations about living as a black person in America.

The sources of those observations, however, were inspirational. Jackson, who grew up poor in New Orleans and went from performing in church as a child to becoming the singing voice of a movement, reflected on life and prejudice and the state of America in a speaking voice as melodious and experience-rich as her singing. 

Jones, recorded in 2017 but sounding as youthful and compelling as he must have when he helped draft King’s “I have a dream” speech in 1963, is an undeservedly little-known figure: a lawyer and Wall Street investor who prepared historic civil-rights legal cases and even helped smuggle out King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  His recorded remarks in Watkins’s piece, however, were less anecdotes from the movement than deep reflections on King’s character and the way forward in present-day America.

Glorious Mahalia matched the singer’s words with music that was by turns mournful, tender, jaunty, and anxious, climaxing in the next-to-last movement, with Jackson singing “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” on a long crescendo while the quartet supplied an impassioned, call-and-response accompaniment.

Peace Be Till—the title evokes both Emmett Till, the black youth whose lynching in 1955 sparked national outrage, and the anticipatory “till,” as in “till justice rolls down like water”—discreetly supported Clarence Jones’s remarks in slow-moving, non vibrato string lines and staccato chords set resonating by a tape loop.

According to the composer’s program note, the piece’s sound collage was enriched by Amber McZeal evoking the presence of Mahalia Jackson (in Jackson’s voice or her own, it wasn’t clear which). The singer famously urged King at the 1963 Washington march to “tell them about the Dream.”

Each of these expressive new pieces, in its own way, said something of lasting value about not just a social movement of a particular era, but about human dignity and a nation’s moral aspirations. One hopes they don’t have to wait till the next ‘60s festival to be heard again.

The concert opened with a nice bit of ‘60s anarchy, Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music of 1968, in which the four players set microphones on long cords swinging over speakers, which emitted feedback squawks on each pass in an ever-changing Reichian phase pattern.

It seemed like a natural prelude to a raucous, tape-enhanced arrangement of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Stephen Prutsman and the Kronos Quartet, very much in the spirit of Jimi Hendrix’s celebrated electric guitar version.

Similarly, the Everly Brothers were the acknowledged model for Jacob Garchik’s arrangement of “The House of the Rising Sun,” as David Harrington’s violin rose gradually to an anguished wail.

Garrop’s piece was followed by Odds and Ends by the Alaska-born, Washington state-based composer Ken Benshoof. True to its title, this 1963 quartet was an eclectic mix of fervent chordal passages, bluesy violin over a loping accompaniment, a syncopated dance à la Bartók, and some Coplandesque open spaces—anything but the 12-tone orthodoxy of academic composition in that era.

The prelude to Watkins’s concluding work was a steamy quartet arrangement by Garchik of “Summertime.”  This tribute to Janis Joplin converted Gershwin’s aria into a 12-bar blues, rendered by Kronos with bawling, grinding authority.

Brian H. Scott’s lighting design for the performance avoided obvious ‘60s references such as news photos or Fillmore-style light shows in favor of backlighting the players with an abstract design on the rear wall, lit in changing colors.

The program kept sound designer Scott Fraser busy with its swinging microphones, tape loops, and varying degrees of amplification for the instruments, from classical discreet to rock blast.

Connecting the musical numbers was a collage of speeches and newscasts from the ‘60s, most notably Robert F. Kennedy’s astonishing impromptu talk on love and caring for one another, delivered to a mostly black audience in Indianapolis on the night of Martin Luther King’s assassination. The melodramatic public events, social tensions, and idealism of that era seemed crystallized in that one awful, inspiring moment. 

The next event in Carnegie Hall’s festival “The ‘60s: The Years that Changed America” is the band Snarky Puppy with singer-songwriter David Crosby and other artists in protest music from and inspired by the ‘60s, 8 p.m. Thursday. carnegiehall.org; 212-247-7800.

One Response to “Emotion of the Sixties recollected in tranquility by Kronos Quartet”

  1. Posted Jan 21, 2018 at 5:50 pm by E Kliment

    Did anyone recognize the lovely piece that was played as the encore?

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