by Nick Stubblefield
When you attend a show by a world renowned contemporary string quartet, you expect to hear music that's both bold and original. That's exactly what I got when I heard the Kronos Quartet last Saturday at Carnegie's Zankel Hall. The quartet's reputation certainly precedes them: over the past 40 years, Kronos has not only taken the string quartet to exciting new places, but they perform with powerful emotion - often underscored by arresting visuals - that make for a highly satisfying concert experience.
First on the program was Merlijn Twaalfhoven's "On Parole", a piece originally composed for trio but reworked for quartet earlier this year. The Dutch composer's concept for the piece was to create a harmonic unity between the players without the use of traditional harmonic lines -- at least at the start. The result was indeed a loose and free sound, with the players finally finding a steady pulse several minutes in. And, as a special treat to the audience, forty young members of the Kaufman Music Center's Face the Music joined in on stage.
Jay Blakesberg for kronosquartet.org
Up next was an emotional performance of Bryce Dessner's "Tenebre" (2011) written in memory of Kronos' longtime lightning designer, Lawrence Neff. Tragically, Neff passed away last year, and to honor his profession, candles were slowly extinguished on stage, one by one - just as in the traditional rite celebrated during Holy Week. In stark contrast to "On Parole," "Tenebre" found its groove almost instantly, delivering gritty, raw timbres throughout.
Following was the world premiere of Derek Charke's "Dear Creator; help us return to the centre of our hearts." The piece utilized the traditional quartet along with media playback of various truck and mining sounds, as the composer was inspired by a trip through the mining and oil communities of his native Canada. The music locked into a driving rhythm and drew from mostly tonal elements, not unlike classical string quartets. Yet, it's use of harmony and extended techniques often mimicked that of a fuzzed-out guitar.
The entire second half of the program was comprised of "Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 for Quartet with Film," a collaboration between composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and filmmaker Bill Morrison. It combined screeching, anxious and sometimes morose string passages with tattered, often unrecognizable film footage from World War I. Intended to convey an anti-war message, it left a definite impression. It was further enhanced when members of the Byzantine Chorus of Kovilj Monastery from Serbia joined about halfway through the piece to contribute their ominous vocals.