New York: Alive And Mixing

Kronos Quartet
Kronos Quartet, L-R: Jeffrey Zeigler, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and David Harrington
Photo by Jay Blakesberg

The Kronos Quartet has been throwing a little party at Carnegie Hall over the past few weeks with plenty of A-listers on stage and in the crowd. I was in the house for three nights of Kronos: Live Mix, and the concerts left me speculating about the festival’s significance in ways that extended well beyond the impressive span of premieres and fresh programming the six-night series brought to the stage. Hearing new work from Alexandra du Bois, Michael Gordon, Henryk Górecki, J. G. Thirlwell, Glenn Branca, Terry Riley, Derek Charke, and a nice collection from R.D. Burman’s catalogue in such a concentrated fashion—all with the gloss of Kronos attitude and subtle lighting effects—demonstrated the larger importance of following your instincts (not to mention your heart) as a new music performer.

Kronos, of course, has built up quite a record over the past three decades, putting the ensemble in a particularly key place to present new work and take risks. They have the necessary mind-set and experience, but more than that, having ushered into being such a volume of work, there’s room for fans to have their own opinions, to not like a particular piece or album, without losing their faith in the ensemble. The power of that situation was on full display during Live Mix.

The quartet’s programming choices made for a notably eclectic festival, mercifully without the terms “iPod generation” or “shuffle function” being uttered. Instead, Kronos concentrated on what it always has—presenting work it’s rather in love with backed by all the passion and conviction it can rally. There were such large crowds on the street before the shows that tourists were stopping to ask what was going on, and the hall itself was filled almost to capacity every night. There was an overt excitement in the air—a concert circumstance that couldn’t help but infect even the most jaded members of New York’s music community. I’m sure not everyone with a ticket was a card-carrying member of the Kronos fan club, but the screaming and the ovations that greeted the quartet each night provided a glimpse of what “fame” in this context feels like. And maybe it’s just his West Coast sensibility crashing on our eastern shoreline, but David Harrington is obviously excited by the work his ensemble is doing and, just as importantly, is skilled at projecting that enthusiasm to the audience.

The opening concert in Carnegie’s downstairs Zankel Hall, Songs Are Sung (March 24), was a program of new pieces from Du Bois, Gordon, and Gorecki. The three works fit together into what Harrington characterizes as a sort of novel in music.

Du Bois’s Night Songs, String Quartet No. 3, inspired by the life and writing of Holocaust victim Etty Hillesum, was more introspective and meditative than blatantly mournful. The composer had done her homework, reading Hillesum’s work and visiting Amsterdam, Westerbrook, and Auschwitz to step as close to the Dutch Jew’s wartime life experience as possible. The music born of this was starkly touching, conveying the complexity of individual human darkness rather than the epic turmoil of nations in a time of genocide.

Gordon’s Sad Park was built on a selection of electronically manipulated voices of young children recorded sharing their memories of September 11. A dangerous approach to a memorial work, perhaps, but it assured that the piece did not come off as precious or manipulate the emotions of the listener like a Hallmark Hall of Fame special. The quartet took a backseat to the recorded material through the first half of the piece, though they were placed more squarely in the forefront as it progressed and turned toward more blatant rage and violence. The piece was hard to take—something about the slowed and stretched voices of youngsters saying things like “two evil planes broke in little pieces and fire came” over and over again made me physically nauseous—but I’m still not sure how much of my reaction to the piece was dislike and how much was a fear of being so close to this hideous juxtaposition. I suspect that very thing might have been what Gordon was after.

After intermission, Kronos offered the U.S. premiere of Górecki’s third quartet, Piesni Spiewaja (“…songs are sung”). Written in 1995, Gorecki delayed releasing the score for a decade, though he does not admit to why he felt compelled to withhold it. The piece carries an internal nostalgic softness that weaves its way through the nearly hour-long meditation. It brought up an easy comparison for me of watching my grandmother wile away the final weeks of her life sitting in silence on the back porch, reviewing memories in no particular order and without feeling pressured to reach any sort of conclusion. Structurally, Gorecki’s musical material seemed to mirror this train of thought as well, picking pieces up again and setting them down as desire dictated.

Things took a bit of a turn towards the hip and trendy for The Cusp of Magic (April 7) program, in terms of the crowd at least. Asymmetrical haircuts on display in the lobby aside, however, this concert was a stand out for how it pushed at the definitions of “string quartet,” playing with the ensemble’s organic textures rather than forcing it to mimic something it’s not (i.e. embark on a misguided venture to become a rock band).

Thirlwell’s Nomatophobis caught attention right out of the gate with its percussive, aggressive language. Slides in smallish intervals, harmonics, pizzicato—the playing was always a little dirty, even in the quiet exchanges between the viola and cello. Branca’s Light Field (In Consonance), characterized by the composer as an “air on open strings,” was a reworking of a piece originally scored for guitars, bass, and drums. Kronos kept up a steady sawing throughout the work’s 14-minute run time, kicking up harmonics and overtones while lulling the listener into the music’s mechanical, piston-action makeup.

Pipa master Wu Man joined Kronos on stage for the evening’s crowning work: Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic. Riley and Kronos have a musical relationship that dates back to 1978, and the depth and intimacy this allows between composer and ensemble was quite evident in this particular case. Riley started with a desire to have the piece be “magical” and Harrington’s granddaughter Emily’s toys and noisemakers helped guide him. It’s an expansive piece that covers a lot of ground without belaboring any one point, and I fell into it deeply without quite grasping the particulars of why. The integration of the toys was giggle-inducing (to keep a straight face while cellist Jeff Zeigler worked an orange squeak toy with his toe would have been criminal) and captured a joyful innocence without inducing a Slurpee headache.

Kronos wrapped up its festival with a blow-out production in the larger Stern Auditorium: India Calling (April 8), largely a selective recap of You’ve Stolen My Heart, the 2005 disc they recorded with Bollywood vocal legend Asha Bhosle. The glittering saris catching the light across the hall set the tone for the evening, and so even though Derek Charke’s Cercle du Nord III provided quite a bit of evocative color and rhythmic interest, it was simply focused on the wrong geography. Much of the concert’s opening half, in fact, felt like little more than killing time while waiting for the opening act to get off the stage. The low point was an unfortunate transcription of a Sigur Rós track (I was induced to flashbacks of playing electric violin in junior-high orchestra for a performance of the Paula Abdul classic “Straight Up”…shudder) which left me seriously searching for examples of an ensemble on the classical side of the tracks capable of uncovering something vital when “covering” anything. Zakir Hussain joined Kronos on stage towards the end of the first half and got the party started, so to say. By the time Bhosle made her entrance after intermission the crowd was in gear. She charmed the hall with ample stage banter in her admittedly broken English, tossing out asides in Hindi. At 73, her voice might not be quite what it was (and the guys on the mixing board seemed only to worsen the volume and clarity issues) but Bhosle has lost no edge as a show-woman, and she danced and flirted with the crowd as Burman’s music dictated throughout her set. Kronos did its best to conjure the heavy synth quality of the Bollywood classics, with violist Hank Dutt logging double duty on keyboard, but those in the audience as intrigued by the music as the spectacle hopefully already had the recording at home. In the end, the crowd roared its appreciation and offered Bhosle several bouquets of flowers. These she gamely offered to donate to Zeigler, who will be marrying composer Paola Prestini this Friday.