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Kronos Quartet Asserts Their Reign in Carnegie Hall 40th-Anniversary Concert

by Jacob Ryan

Kronos Quartet, Wu Man, Carnegie Hall, Steve J. Sherman

Photo credit: Steve J. Sherman, Carnegie Hall

The Kronos Quartet's 40th-anniversary concert last Friday night at Carnegie Hall started with a guest appearance by Big Bird—which, I suppose, shouldn't have been all that shocking.

Big Bird appeared in an opening video by Sam Green that highlighted the quartet's 40-year history, including their appearance on Sesame Street. Newspaper clippings fluttered across the screen, accomplishments rolled over one another, clamoring for attention, and new quartet members came and went. It was a lovely review, and when the actual quartet walked on stage after the video was over, they were greeted to an incredibly warm reception. The applause the group received communicated something deeper than the standard ecstatic rush of an energized audience: It was a more profound appreciation brought on by long-term satisfaction, the kind of applause that can only be earned after decades of consistently fresh performance. I had never heard applause quite like it, and the rest of the concert proved that it remains well earned to this day.

With the help of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Aleksandra Vrebalov's Bubbles cast an otherworldly veil over the concert, gently laying over the audience a series of haunting choral glissandos and sonorous vibes. Aheym, by Bryce Dessner of Brooklyn indie-rock group The National, was a rhythmic and emotionally satisfying piece for electric guitar and string quartet, and despite some acoustic difficulties, it was a definite standout on the program.

Other highlights ranged from beautiful and subtle folk arrangements to the brilliant New York premiere of Philip Glass's Orion: China featuring pipa virtuoso Wu Man. Ms. Wu wiped the floor with that piece, fingers flying all over her instrument, from the opening pipa solo to the final cadenza-like passage. The piece was structured loosely like a concerto—even ending with a brief ritornello in the quartet—and allowed Ms. Wu's fiery virtuosity to light up the stage; her pitch was like daggers and her rhythm tremendous.

Less successful was Terry Riley's The Serquent Risadome, which communicated about as much emotion to the audience as its title did. While the new work was motivically tight and received a very skilled performance, it betrayed no hint of dramatic conception. The audience's shuffling started less than a minute in, and the applause at the end was saved for when Mr. Riley himself took a bow. The audience's reaction seemed appreciative of the composer's old work, not inflamed by the new. Mr. Riley, unlike the Kronos Quartet, did not appear to be able to conjure up both kinds of applause.

In addition to the occasional lackluster premiere, there were some acoustic difficulties with the electronics throughout the concert. In Geeshie Wiley's Last Kind Words, for example, a dry and rather spiceless beat stumbled out of the speakers throughout the piece, frequently overwhelming the quartet. Similarly, in Jherek Bischoff's A Semiperfect Number, the over-amped bass guitar was relegated to square downbeats and flaccid hooks, and you could barely even hear the strings.

The disappointing electronics would have made for a disappointing end to the concert if the quartet hadn't come out and magnificently tore apart the stage with their famous rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze." By the end, violist Hank Dutt had not one but two detached bow hairs from digging so hard into the instrument; now that's a finale. The audience shot to their feet—that's what they had come to hear.

There is no end in sight for Kronos's celebrated reign as the premier string quartet for advocating new music, and who would have it any other way?