New York, NY
January 25, 2020
Gordon: Clouded Yellow
Glass: Quartet Satz
Mazzoli: Enthusiasm Strategies
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.
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.