It does give a person pause. The Kronos Quartet, once avidly followed as a cutting edge new music ensemble thatwas single-handedly redefining the string quartet as a performance medium, is currently celebrating its 40th year.
Kronos returned to UC San Diego’s Mandeville Auditorium Tuesday (March 11) exhibiting the combination of panache and passion that has defined this ensemble over the years. But their programming has settled into a kind of middle-aged avant garde respectability, and it was not until the pipa virtuosa Wu Man joined them in an encore, a vibrant selection from Tan Dun’s “Ghost Opera,” that they electrified the room like the Kronos of yore.
The evening began auspiciously with Bryce Dessner’s “Aheym” (written for Kronos in 2009), an etude of muscular minimalism that relentlessly reiterated a mordent motif, creating dense textures that seemed both static and driving. For first violinist David Harrington and cellist Sunny Yang he supplied angular modal themes that provided welcome contrast.
After Dessner, Kronos offered three eclectic arrangements, a Kronos trademark, that dissipated some of the higher expectations kindled by “Aheym.” “Last Kind Words,” a slight blues song from the 1930’s by the obscure singer Geeshie Wiley, provided Harrington a sexy melody with more than a hint of defiance to savor while his colleagues accompanied him with mordant pizzicatos.
“Flow,” a hushed meditation by Laurie Anderson, was constructed of slowly changing chords in tight harmony that made the strings sound like a parlor harmonium. Continuing its nod to spiritual music, Kronos then played Alter Yecheil Karniol’s “Sim Shalom,” a turn of 20th century synagogue chant arranged by Judith Berkson, which gave cellist Yang the opportunity to offer her instrumental simulation of old school cantorial singing. Although her playing was stylish, anyone who has attended a Sabbath service in a large synagogue would find this string transcription rather tepid by comparison.[php snippet=1]
“You Know Me from Here,” a recent (2012) work written for Kronos by Missy Mazzoli struck me as a paean to stasis stitched together with somnambulistic chord progressions and decorated with bent pitches and eerie portamenti. Reducing Richard Wagner’s arch-Romantic Prelude from Tristan und Isolde from full orchestra to string quartet may have been a bizarre notion, but in real time it was a worthwhile exercise. It allowed us to hear how delicately the composer structured his slowly moving progressions and does give him some credibility as a proto-minimalist.
Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 6, premiered last fall by Kronos, restored my confidence in the craft of contemporary composition. In addition to his easily-recognized walls of Jackson Pollack-like turbulence that opened the piece, he actually cultivated some quiet counterpoint in the Quartet’s middle movement, and his final movement suggested the rhythmic pulses of a Latin American dance. Perhaps Glass will become the next Elliott Carter, busily turning out engaging new work until his centennial year!