Kronos Quartet celebrates contemporary music at Carnegie Hall

Kronos Quartet
Zankel Hall
Carnegie Hall
New York, NY
January 25, 2020

Gordon: Clouded Yellow
Glass: Quartet Satz
Mazzoli: Enthusiasm Strategies
Mochizuki: Boids
Riley: “The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlour” and “One Earth, One People, One Love” from Sun Rings
Dessner: Le Bois
Reich: Different Trains

Man: “Silk and Bamboo” from Two Chinese Paintings

The Kronos Quartet’s sold out Saturday night performance at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall was an enthusiastic celebration of music by living, thriving composers, three of whom were present in the audience: Michael Gordon, Missy Mazzoli, and Philip Glass. About half the selections performed were products of Kronos’ ambitious and ingenious initiative Fifty for the Future, wherein 50 new works – 25 by men, 25 by women – are being commissioned over a five year period, with the score along with a recording by Kronos available for free online. A remarkable way to disseminate new repertoire for the venerable string quartet, and one had that project to thank for the works heard on Saturday by Glass, Mazzoli, Mochizuki, and Dessner.

Kronos Quartet (not pictured, cellist Paul Wiancko), photo credit Jay Blakesberg

The quartet performed against a backdrop of lighting effects, adding a visual dimension to the already rich aural soundscape. Michael Gordon’s Clouded Yellow opened the evening, evoking its namesake species of butterfly with a striking harmonic palette, mutating over a cello ostinato – one of many fine contributions from cellist Paul Wiancko, substituting for Sunny Yang while she is on maternity leave. A more rhythmically driven section offered a propulsive drive, with matters eventually dissipating to mesmerizing effect. Glass’ Quartet Satz showed the composer at his most lyrical, glacially paced but not without quintessentially Glassian modulations. The New York premiere of Mazzoli’s Enthusiasm Strategies followed, an expression of joy marked by ethereal textures in the strings’ upper registers. Misato Mochizuki’s Boids refers to the flocking behavior of fish, as such, the music was filled with sudden, sharp turns, depicting the entropy found in nature.

A pair of movements from Terry Riley’s extensive suite Sun Rings rounded off the first half. With the NASA Art Program one of the work’s commissioners, Riley drew upon a literal music of the spheres, weaving in recordings of solar winds and other phenomenon: in “The Electron Cyclotron Frequency Parlour”, acoustic textures danced with cosmic electronica. In his informative commentary between selections, first violinist David Harrington noted that the concluding “One Earth, One People, One Love” has become something of an anthem for Kronos. 9/11 fell during the genesis of Sun Rings, forcing the work to take a different direction in the wake of new reality. Riley employed a recording of Alice Walker speaking the eponymous mantra, and projections of the Earth from space put the events on the surface in the context of a vast cosmos. An extended passage for solo cello was particularly moving.

Two larger works filled the second half, beginning with the world premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Le Bois. Drawing on a work by Pérotin and inspired by the modern day destruction by fire of the Notre Dame Cathedral, it began with a monastic drone, which upon taking a myriad of guises, pointed towards a contemplative ending. While I look forward to hearing more from Dessner, this work ultimately didn’t make the strongest impression. Closing the printed program was Reich’s iconic Different Trains, written expressly for Kronos in 1988. Harrington noted this marked turning point for them in which the quartet effectively became a quintet given the newfound need for a full-time sound engineer. Vigorous material opened, brimming with American idealism and optimism as encapsulated by the transcontinental railroad, only for matters to be starkly contrasted by depiction of the trains on the other side of the Atlantic that contemporaneously transported victims to the concentration camps. A definitive performance of this masterpiece.

By way of an encore, the quartet offered Wu Man’s “Silk and Bamboo”, another product of Fifty for the Future. The piece included a substantial percussion part on Chinese gong and woodblocks, expertly handled by violist Hank Dutt. A topical choice given the coincidence of the Lunar New Year, and a wonderfully festive end to the evening.

Zankel Hall before the Kronos Quartet’s performance

From Terry Riley to Ethiopia, CMA’s Solstice 2019 an incandescent night to remember

Cleveland Museum of Art
Cleveland, OH
June 22, 2019

Now in its eleventh year, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s annual Solstice soirée has steadily become the banner cultural event of the Cleveland summer. Running until the early hours of the next morning, the event is first and foremost a musical celebration, with this year’s remarkably diverse lineup curated by the Philadelphia based DJ and record producer King Britt. Two stages were constructed, one in the atrium and one outdoors on the south terrace, allowing for a robust list of performers – and the inevitable frustration of not being able to be at two places simultaneously! Most striking about the outdoor stage was the extensive use of video projection, turning the facade of the museum into a massive canvas on which to display a dizzying array of colors and imagery – with credit to Undervolt & Co. and the team of curators and artists.

The evening opened with a performance of Terry Riley’s watershed In C. Dating from 1964, it is often considered the first major work of minimalism, setting the stage for Glass and Reich. Riley left the instrumentation, number of players, and duration open to interpretation. The present rendering was given by an ensemble of 10 instruments – xylophone, marimba, harp, steel pan, some commanded by multiple players – and lasted just over the 45 minute mark (Wikipedia notes recordings ranging from 16 to 78 minutes). I noticed the players (who were uncredited in the program) used a stopwatch to keep pace, likely a necessity in this work comprised of 53 phrases each to be repeated an indeterminate number of times. The incessant repetitions were mesmerizingly hypnotic, and I was struck by the communal ambience with the performers positioned such that the space between them and the audience all but evaporated. It was hard to not get disoriented in the wash of sound, but I did notice one subtle effect in the use of a cello bow on one of the xylophones, a technique that would later be put to effective use in John Adams’ Scheherazade.2. To close the work, each musician dropped out one at a time, almost imperceptibly, before all that remained was silence.

Terry Riley’s In C

Of course, the evening wasn’t exclusively about the music: one highlight was the opportunity to walk through the galleries after hours – and it was a bit surreal to stand in front of favorite paintings by Pissarro or Church at nearly midnight. Along with the permanent collection, the second iteration of Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art was open to all, a fascinating display of visual art in praise of Japanese deities – some pieces over 1000 years old – further putting the Cleveland Museum of Art on the map as a major destination for Asian art. In addition, a full program of gallery talks were offered. I caught Amanda Mikolic’s discussion of the late 16th-century half armor designed by the noted Pompeo della Cesa.

To my mind, the biggest musical discovery came from the Brooklyn based band Anbessa Orchestra, commanding a musical fusion rooted in the folk traditions of Ethiopia. The seven piece band – including a very fine trumpet player and a flutist à la Ian Anderson – had an absolutely electric chemistry, bridging both Western and African traditions with an unrelenting kinetic energy. There was nonetheless a certain cosmopolitan quality to their music, however, as if some of the folk roots got lost in translation, yet distinctive elements such as the exotic scale central to “Son of No Country” showed a nuanced understanding of the North African inspiration. Back in the atrium, the melodic strumming of guitarist Rafiq Bhatia provided a more laid back alternative to the dance club vibe on the terrace with Ohio native RJD2 – who closed the memorable evening in understated fashion on the acoustic guitar.

Anbessa Orchestra