Gratitude to Kronos Quartet, diversity in contemporary classical music

David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang. Photo from

David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang. Photo from

My fascination with minimalist works has increased over the last decade, so I was happy to see the Kronos Quartet perform live. The diversity of the program was wonderful. It included pieces by composers from America, South Africa, Iran, and Latvia whose works were inspired by the Elvis Presley phenomenon, American blues, Persian carpet weaving, and the natural environment. The topliner was String Quartet No. 6, a new Philip Glass commission that had its world premiere in 2013 and was fortunately brought to Irvine by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

The intimacy of the theater was enhanced by warm hues of reds, blues, and purples on the black backdrop that shifted ever so slightly during the performance to accentuate the tone of the evening’s musical endeavor. David Harrington’s placid voice introduced us to the special pieces we would hear that evening, starting with Daugherty’s Elvis Everywhere (1993). It was fun and upbeat, with the quartet performing alongside the composer’s prerecorded script of three Elvis impersonators singing and improvising. At times the musicians supported the melodies of famous Elvis tunes. Other times they interacted with the voices like the recorded track was another performer in the composition, with a call-and-response feel. Elvis’ country, rock, and gospel influence, as well as his showmanship, personified the music and welcomed the audience to get to know the Kronos Quartet musicians as conduits for “The King.” Last Kind Words (c. 1930) had the musicians playing a soulful melody of the late Geeshie Wiley. The arrangement by Jacob Garchik transformed the string quartet into a blues band, and the performers kinesthetically exuded the deepness of the music. The charisma of Elvis and Geeshie expressed through the music gave the program a sociable start.

It turned out that the night’s performance included a world premiere of Tar O Pood (2013) which, although performed previously, had never been shown with a new film depicting the inspiration of the composition: Persian carpet weaving. And, the filmmaker was in the audience to see the culminating creation. When I read the program notes before the performance I was intrigued and looking forward to how composer Sahba Aminikia would explore this subject matter in his music. The potential could have been presenting the complex rug design, various colors of thread, or the repetitive sounds of the weaving loom. But as I listened and watched the film, unfortunately I was less fixed on the music. Instead of hearing the composer’s musical expression of these ideas, I watched them on the screen objectively. The music shared a role in the storytelling, and I’m not sure I prefer that, given my inability to appreciate the musical composition alongside a dominant film narrative.

I’m already a fan of Kevin Volan’s White Man Sleeps (1985), and I can’t get enough of the melody in the second movement. Good thing the minimalist influences keep that melody alive. I hadn’t previously heard all the movements, and tonight I also enjoyed the fourth movement; it gave me a sense of solitude. However, I was unsettled with how the piece ended. After the performance, I learned that the Kronos Quartet version of Volans’ composition reordered the movements in the original version. Each movement has a distinct feel. The last movement was somber and short in comparison to the other movements, so it did not help the entire piece find resolution.

After intermission, the quartet performed Silsila (2013) by Latvian composer Santa Ratniece. The composer takes the audience on the journey of the Brahmaputra River in the Himalayas–from Tibet, through India and Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. This piece showcased Kronos Quartet’s keen ability to translate sounds of nature with a variety of techniques on their instruments. The swirling and cyclical visions of a river churning, from a small stream to a rushing water having descended 5,210 vertical meters was paralleled in the composition.

Whenever I think of Philip Glass, I think of any of his numerous signature scores. I think of the time I heard Satyagraha with a friend and I started by saying, “It sounds like…” and in that pause I was grasping for a name of another of his compositions, but we both realized it just sounded like most of his other works, and we laughed. At this performance, I was still searching for hints of his earlier music themes just so I could have a chuckle. Despite this, the new work went beyond what I already knew of his successful style. String Quartet No. 6 (2013) went beyond Glass’ known musical arena but still was firmly seated in tonality. The three-movement piece was insistent but not overpowering. It was not particularly approachable, and I felt a void of the usual visual interpretation that happens in my mind when listening to music I enjoy. As a composition, I have no doubt it is brilliant, but I did not connect to it as much as some other movements in the program.

A beautiful encore was given in memoriam of a member of the Kronos Quartet artistic crew who passed away last year: The Beatitudes, composed by Vladimir Martynov. What a reverent way to allow her to have encores, still, with the musical family with which she worked. When the group shared this personal story with the audience, it brought me closer to them as individuals, and as performers. I was not the only one to shed a few tears for this stranger. The audience shared the same empathy; perhaps imagining that as the quartet played they remembered fond times with their close friend, or perhaps missing their own loved ones. I walked out of the theater thankful for music and live performance, and their capabilities for expression and human connection.


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