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April 2019

A Thousand Thoughts: Kronos Quartet with Sam Green at The Town Hall

"The string quartet repertoire was probably changed more by (Kronos Quartet) than by any other group." - Philip Glass

WSHB1522-by-Waleed-ShahWhat is a string quartet? That seems to have been the essential question on Sam Green and Joe Bini's mind when they set out to make the documentary film A Thousand Thoughts, about the pioneering, peerless Kronos Quartet. The film, which received its New York premiere last night at The Town Hall, reminds us how Kronos has spent the past half-century upending just about every convention associated with the string quartet. Instead of tuxedos or concert black, they've typically worn the colorful, trendy outfits of a rock band (though they've toned it down considerably in recent years.) Instead of being marooned to classical radio or stuffy recital halls, they appeared on Sesame Street and at experimental music festivals. And, instead of playing the core repertoire by Haydn, Beethoven or Schubert, Kronos almost exclusively plays music by living composers, with more than 1,000 commissions to date, including their ongoing Fifty for the Future project with Carnegie Hall. 

When Green pitched the project to Kronos founder and Artistic Director David Harrington (whom I met at the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville four years ago) he called it a "live documentary", in which Kronos would perform live and Green would provide running commentary to the film. (Green's other projects include The Love Song of R Buckminster Fuller, featuring live accompaniment by Yo La Tengo.) Harrington signed on immediately; Thursday's performance was the 18th since the film's premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018. 

Green was given full access to Kronos' extensive archives, housed in their San Francisco rehearsal studio, and the film is largely a pastiche of his never-before-seen findings: video and audio recordings, photographs, old clippings of reviews (yikes!). It also includes interviews with composers, managers, musicians - and, of course, the four members of Kronos: Harrington, John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola), and Sunny Yang (cello).

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Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center Celebrates George Crumb at 90

by Steven Pisano and Pete Matthews

George Crumb at 90 Lincoln Center
(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The American composer George Crumb turns 90 later this year, but the Chamber Music  Society of Lincoln Center started the birthday celebration early with a two-part program spanning his entire musical career. Crumb and his wife Elizabeth (his high school sweetheart) were on hand both nights to listen, and they generously greeted a steady stream of young musicians (percussionists in particular) who were thrilled to meet the esteemed composer. 

Crumb has long been a unique voice among American composers, having emerged from outside the traditional conservatory system, which at the time was producing monolithic atonal, abstract music. By contrast, Crumb's music is both challenging and deeply felt, spiritual and dynamic. Often employing extended techniques - prepared pianos, amplified instruments - his musical imagination seems boundless. 

A survey of the Alice Tully Hall stage made it clear that Crumb does not write music for orchestras. While he occasionally has written works involving violins, flutes, and other instruments, he primarily has written for piano and percussion. Lots and lots of percussion! The stage looked like a big junkyard filled with various xylophones, marimbas, kettle drums, hammers, cow bells, bass drums, cymbals, wind chimes, and all sorts of other strange-looking unknown instruments. One of my favorites was the wind machine, a canvas chamber with a wind-up handle that mimics the sound of the wind.

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New York Woodwind Quintet at the Tenri Cultural Center

2On any given night in New York, there are literally dozens - hundreds - of music events competing for your attention. Most of which are well above grade. But, you could do far worse than the recital I heard last Friday at the Tenri Cultural Institute, a multi-use space dedicated to Japanese culture tucked into 13th Street, adjacent to the New School's Mannes School of Music. The New York Woodwind Quintet, now in it's 70th (!) season, consists of veteran wind players Charles Neidich (clarinet), William Purvis (horn), Marc Goldberg (bassoon), Stephen Taylor (oboe), and Carol Wincenc (flute), all of whom have been with the group for at least three decades. 

The first half of Friday's program featured a pair of 20th century works which put the range and expertise of these veteran players on full display. John Harbison's Quintet for Winds (1978) is bright, flavor-forward music that ranged from a tender and emotional Romanza to an Allegro finale that had an almost cartoonish quality, full of squeaks and squawks. By contrast, György Kurtág's Woodwind Quintet (1959) was spare and uncompromising, leaving you with a haunting sense of unease. Goldberg, who performed the work for Kurtág at Marlboro 20 years ago, told the audience that the composer spent a full week with he and his fellow musicians preparing this 8 minute piece. 

After intermission, the quintet was joined by pianist Bryan Wagorn - who among other roles is Associate Conductor of the Metropolitan Opera - to perform the Brahms Piano Quartet, Op. 25, arranged by the quintet's founding flutist, Samuel Baron. At first, I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of winds playing this driving, propulsive music, which has long been one of my favorite pieces of chamber music. But, once I embraced the arrangement on its own terms, I appreciated the clean lines of the winds, which paired surprisingly well with Wagorn's spot-on piano and brought out colors and textures I'd never heard before. "As winds," Neidich told us beforehand, "we don't have the same balance issues (as strings.)" The concluding Rondo didn't pack quite the same visceral punch as I've grown accustomed to, but the players did pick up the pace over the final few bars, generating a loud and well-deserved ovation. 

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