Friday, January 18, 2013

Kronos String Quartet: For the Ages

A great sculpture on the way in to the Valentine, a beautifully restored theater in downtown Toledo. Getting our tickets from grandson Tony , with his mom and me. Tony works the box office with friend Sue Dessner.  Interior scenes and  handsome V logo above the grand stage. Promo for upcoming production of HAIR, which Tony is taking his mom to see. 

From Valentine theater program notes.
A fitting ethereal image like the performance itself. 
The Kronos Quartet played at the Valentine Theater last night, and Elissa and I had the great good fortune to experience a profoundly moving musical evening.  

Kronos was formed 40 years ago by violinist David Harrington, ahead of his time then and now, and includes Harrington, John Sherba, also on violin;  Hank Dutt, viola; and Jeffrey Zeigler on cello.  Brilliant musicians all, pushing the limits of their instruments in extraordinary ways, perfectly attuned to one another and the international avant garde music, much of it specially commissioned for Kronos. As one grateful member of the audience, a violinist, said to me during intermission: "It moves me to tears."   

The juxtaposition of contemporary classical music in a restored 1895 theater in downtown Toledo added to the experience. Here we sat on red fabric chairs, upfront and close, surrounded by gold gilt and crystal lights, in a European-style grand structure, a house of culture, built during the heyday of the Victorian era.

But we were listening not to Bach, Beethoven or Mozart, but to modern composers from all over the world: Bryce Dessner, Laurie Anderson, Cafe Tacuba, Nicole Lizee, Ram Narayan, Alter Yechiel Karniol, Omar Souleyman, Sigur Ros and Aleksandra Vrebalov.  

In a recording studio, BBC image.
Most of the composers were new to me, and to the audience.  We were enthralled. The only composer most of us knew was Richard Wagner, and Kronos put his music in critical context.

Kronos played Wagner's "Prelude from Tristan und Isolde," which I have always loved, in an arrangement only Kronos could imagine, every note exquisite, emphasizing the composition of the piece in ways I had never heard before.  I don't think I could ever listen to it again played by any other group, or symphony.

Interestingly, David Harrington, so absolutely brilliant on the violin, introduced the music in a minimalist but powerful style.  He acknowledged Wagner's virulent anti-Semitism but noted the quartet's focus solely on the music, which is astonishingly futuristic as Kronos interprets it. Kronos performed it in an intentional and thoughtful sequence, as well, after the moving Jewish "cantorial" music of Alter Yechiel Karnio's "Sim Sholom."

The whole program was brilliantly conceived and executed, one piece leading to another, new instruments, old instruments, moogs and syntheziers, a drum called a tapan, fascinating instruments I had never seen or heard before, and the use of pre-recordings that seamlessly enriched the cacaphonous sounds and meaning of the music.

I thought the stage set was brilliant too, simple and complex, brought to life by lighting designer Laurence Neff and audio engineer Brian Mohr, who together highlighted the musicianship with great skill and sensitivity.

The program notes, which I didn't read until I got home, put the experience in context: "For nearly 40 years, Kronos has pursued a singular artistic vision, combining a spirit of fearless exploration with a commitment to expanding the range and context of the string quartet.  In the process, Kronos has become one of the most celebrated and influential groups of our time, performing thousands of concerts worldwide, releasing more than 45 recordings of extraordinary breadth and creativity, collaborating with many of the worlds most eclectic composers and performers, and commissioning more than 750 works and arrangements for string quartet."  (See also www.kronosquartet.org)

Kronos transported us to new dimensions.  "Awesome," Elissa called it. I think that's the best adjective for this magical musical evening.   
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