For better or worse, Kronos Quartet remains on the cutting edge, introducing a wide range of new music from the realms of classical, jazz and rock—plus various world cultures—to the chamber-music stage.
It was for the better when the quartet performed for almost 1,200 people on Sunday night.
The concert began with "Aheym (Homeward)" by Bryce Dessner, who is also the guitarist in the rock band The National. Although it began with some typical Glass-like repetition, the work became more compelling and dynamic as it progressed, including a warm, Eastern European-style segment for Jeffrey Zeigler's cello. By the time the piece concluded, its explosive intensity and the passionate performance won over the crowd.
That set the tone for the rest of the evening. The emphasis in many of the compositions was on rhythm and emotion—not to ignore the quartet's fabled experimentalism and the occasional uses of recorded tracks to augment the four players' work.
Dark elegance and transfixing melodies were evident in jaw-droppingly beautiful works by the Icelandic pop group Sigur Rós, and by composers Michael Gordon and Aleksandra Vrebalov. Soundtrack composer Clint Mansell was represented by a suite from his score for Requiem for a Dream, on which Kronos originally played; the recorded synthesizer parts didn't detract from the assertive, tart melodies. Amon Tobin (who specializes in hip-hop-style sound collages) created "Bloodstone" by sampling Kronos in the studio, and now they play the composition live, "sampling" Tobin's work in return.
The six very-brief movements of John Zorn's "The Dead Man" were idiosyncratic and humorous—aping the sounds of fluttering birds, creaking doors and scraping floors; it could have been the soundtrack to a short story by Edgar Allan Poe. The quartet finished the piece by dramatically shaking dust from their bows, as if swatting flies.
The recorded voices of witnesses of Sept. 11 added to and became part of the composition in minimalist Steve Reich's latest work, "WTC 9/11," which Kronos played for the first time 10 days earlier at Duke University. Reich wove the text into the music, with the strings doubling and harmonizing with the melodies created by the voices. Was it sensationalistic, cathartic, manipulative or healing? I haven't decided yet—but it definitely left a lump in my throat.