The Kronos Quartet lived up to its artistic mission, "to present and promote contemporary music and expand the repertoire for string quartet," during its Saturday concert at the Lied Center.
The opening number, by conceptualist John Zorn, combined 51 of the composer's varied "moments" in apparently random order. Zorn claims a strong influence from 1940s cartoons, and it was clearly evident in this witty miscellany. Rapid changes in key, tempo and technique were evident, along with more string sounds than you'll hear from most quartets: whistles, mewing cats, whinnying horses, grunting pigs.
The second work, "Mugam Beyati Shiraz," was an ancient Azerbaijani melody, rendered in 2004 by Azeri musician and composer Rahman Asadollahi. David Harrington on violin played the expressive melody against a constant bagpipe-like drone from the other strings that was probably done in the original by a tambura.
Two songs by Indian composer Rahul Dev Burman followed. The first, "Mehooba Mehooba," accompanied a seductive dance in the film "Sholay." Lively and strongly rhythmic, it was curiously reminiscent at times of western American music, at times of Jewish folk music. The second, "Nodir Pare Utthchhe Dhnoa," represents a lover watching smoke rising over a river and is filled with appropriately liquid and airy sounds. Recorded percussion, featuring a tabla drum, accompanied the quartet.
Saturday marked the premiere of "InkarrÃ-," a five-movement work by Gabriela Lena Frank. It describes the Inca myth-cycle of creation, struggle and regeneration. The first movement opens with a lovely cantabile violin, backed by soft strumming from the other strings. The second, representing primitive people, is filled with whistle and click sounds, strikingly like those of African languages.
The third movement, which describes competing tribes, is appropriately filled with contrapuntal melodies, clashing chords and an increasing tempo. The fourth movement describes the killing of the last Inca emperor and features a moving viola solo and sharp echoic sounds from the other musicians. The final movement, beginning with a rhapsodic violin solo, is filled with harmonies that suggest the return of justice.
Following the intermission, Ram Narayan's "Raga Mishra Bhairavi" was performed, with Hank Dutt on viola carrying the melody, emulating the sarangi of the original composition. Again, the other strings maintained an accompanying drone. The melody here was sensitively rendered, but to Western ears sounded a bit repetitive.
The postmodernists' darling, Icelandic group Sigur RÃ³s, furnished "Svefn-g-englar," arranged for Kronos by Stephen Prutsman. Though the music of Sigur RÃ³s is described in such superlatives as "compelling" and "sublime," and though Prutsman is a respected musician, perhaps string quartets are not the ideal medium for this work. Filled with harmonics and whale-call rumblings, "Svefn-g-englar" sounded more self-indulgent than cutting-edge.
The evening concluded with "Triple Quartet," by Steve Reich. This unusual work was without doubt intricately structured, but sounded mechanical, with figures repeated many times over, a postmodern "Bolero" for string quartet. Perhaps intensity was sought, but something more like determination was achieved.
An appreciative audience called the group back for two encores, the first an amped-up cover of Jimi Hendrix's Woodstock "National Anthem" and the second Juan Garcia Esquivel's "Miniskirt." The audience felt it their duty to give a standing ovation, but it was the usual slow, reluctant version rather than the genuine article, which brings all to their feet in the same instant.
- Dean Bevan is a professor emeritus of English at Baker University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.