February 11, 2007

Kronos Quartet, 2/7/07

Kronos's show at Eastman Theatre featured only pieces that were commissioned by them or arranged exclusively for them. It brought out what I see as the very best and very worst of the group. I have tremendous respect for them as dedicated advocates of new music. They played one of their under 30 commissions with the same commitment they gave to their proven showpieces. I'm still unsure, though, about their "world music" projects and pop covers. I understand they program this music along with Steve Reich and Michael Gordon to show that they think it's just as good. However, underneath the colored lights and amplification, I'm still sitting in the neo-classical temple of Eastman Theatre listening to a string quartet. It's hard to get away from the feeling that they're engaged in some old-fashioned exoticism.

The program opened with Potassium, a Michael Gordon piece. Its amplified glissandi would be familiar to anyone who has heard Weather, but it is by no means a rehash of that piece. It uses a large-scale ABA form similar to Reich's Triple Quartet. There's a very narrow range of ensemble relationships (lots of staggered entrance glissandi), but a wide range of timbres and harmonies come out. It's a very physical piece. You feel like a chemical element is being synthesized before you, but no soft metal like potassium. You'd need some high-powered lasers to work with whatever Gordon had in mind.

"Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me" is an Iraqi song, author unknown. The notes state that the arrangement they used is "based on a recording produced sometime during the Saddam period between the 1980s and 2002." The cello played a syncopated bass line that kept you on your toes. A fragment of the original recording was played as the song finished up.

"Raga Mishra Bhairavi" is an arrangement of sarangi music by Ram Narayan. The viola took its place here. The stage was dark so I couldn't quite tell, but it looked like John Sherba grabbed an electric sitar for this one.

Dan Visconti's Love Bleeds Radiant came in through the Kronos: Under 30 Project. My anal critic self thought it suffered from the typical young composer syndrome of too-many-ideas, but my adventurous programming self was intrigued by the idea of touring with something that's untested and uncertain. It gets that critical dialogue going between performer and audience instead of composer self and anal critic self. Maybe it's bad for every item on a concert program to be a proven masterpiece.

"Flugufrelsarinn," a Sigur Rós song, followed. I thought it was a very convincing arrangement that kept a lot of the band's sound intact. On the other hand, a friend who knows the band better than I do criticized the arrangement for not being loyal enough to the original.

Derek Charke, a new name to me, contributed Cercle du Nord III. It had a minimalist pulse but followed a seemingly programmatic form. There were occasional pre-recorded interjections of speech which were unfortuantely (intentionally?) hard to make out. I had trouble making sense of everything with only one hearing, but I can give it the compliment that I wanted to give it a second one.

"Lullaby" and "Tusen Tanakar (A Thousand Thoughts)" fell into Kronos's direct, sentimental style. Either you care or you don't.

The program closed with Reich's Triple Quartet. On recording, it seems like perhaps his most traditional piece. Three fast-slow-fast movements, arch forms, and large scale harmonic movement based on mediant relationships. In person, it seems as radical as any other. Throughout his career, Reich has found ways to get people to play their instruments in unusual ways. They're not necessarily original methods (sharing instruments comes from his study of Ghanaian drumming), but he always integrates convincingly into into his personal musical language.

Here he takes what is normally the most "intimate" of genres and turns a group into one cog in a larger machine: a live quartet plays against a tape of two others. When seen live, the combination creates a startling juxtaposition of the active and inactive (much like the usual fast music/slow music at the same time in other Reich). The music itself is incredibly lively, begging you to dance along with it. However, when 2/3 of the musicians are canned, the stage picture doesn't have enough energy to match. In addition, the group appeared intentionally deadened. Their gestures felt perfunctory and the lighting staying consistently dimmed and uncolored (both in big contrast to everything else that night). I always thought of the piece as good workout music, but in person the active/inactive juxtaposition is very unsettling. I wonder if I would feel the same way about the piece if it was performed by three live quartets.

Three encores ensued: "Beloved, O Beloved" from their Bollywood album (ebullient music, I'd like to hear the rest now), a Star-Spangled Banner à la Hendrix (the lighting projected distorted instrumental shapes on the side walls, the interpretation was about as radical as it was in '69), and "Lux Aeternum" from Requiem for a Dream (music that reminds you how "serious" the movie was).

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