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Sunday, May 5, 2013

Concert Review: A Cellist's Last Song

The Kronos Quartet returns to New York.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Kronos Quartet: Hank Dutt, Jeffery Zeigler, David Harrington, John Sherba.
The Kronos Quartet returned to Carnegie Hall's downstairs Zankel Hall on Friday night. This concert marks cellist Jeffrey Zeigler's last New York appearance with the ensemble; he is scheduled to leave Kronos later this year. Future lineup changes aside, the program offered what New Yorkers have expected of Kronos in the ensemble's four-decade history: cutting-edge new music delivered with precision and style.


Kronos performances are different. The Quartet prefer darkness for their audience, creating a cinematic atmosphere that demands total attention on the music. They play lit only by custom lighting designs that they set up before the concerts. There is some degree of amplification on their instruments, and many performances of new and modern works incorporate samples or pre-built electronics.

The concert opened with a world premiere: You Know Me From Here by composer Missy Mazzoli. This tripartite work took the form of a sophisticated musical journey towards what the composer describes as "home." This 20-minute trip took the form of keening melodic lines, scraped chords and sophisticated musical conversation between the instruments.

Next was one of Kronos' trademark song covers: in this case an arrangement (by Jacob Garchik) song "Flow" by New York experimental artist and musician Laurie Anderson. This song is drawn from Homeland, Ms. Anderson's most recent studio album. In this arrangement, the work was brief and atmospheric, with fascinating textures undulating in shimmering waves of sound.

The Kronos players then burned off the remaining oxygen in the room with the New York premiere of String Quartet No. 3 by the Russian composer Valentin Silvestrov. This is a minimalist work, but not in the same "repeat until it moves" school of American composers Philip Glass and John Adams. Silvestrov's work is inspired by Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces and the aphoristic ideas of Anton Webern. This work's tiny movements were played pianissimo. With music played this quietly, the ears strain to hear theme, development and idea. The rewards are worth it, exquisite, microscopic sounds that are crystalline in structure, over seven brief, and very beautiful movements.

The second half of the evening featured the New York premiere of Aleksandra Vrebalov's Babylon, Our Own, with the quartet joined by clarinetist David Krakauer. Mr. Krakauer's presence altered the sound of the ensemble, adding elements of klezmer and folk-song to a rich musical stew. Tape was also used here, with mysterious voices engaged in various religious rituals (I heard Jewish, Christian, and Buddhist texts and I am sure there were others) providing background to the music. The clarinet's lines twisted among the strings. At one point, Mr. Krakauer doubling lines with violinist David Harrington as the others played brutal, slab-like chords.

The Kronos players offered an encore: Terry Riley's spectacular One Earth, One People, One Love from the British composer's longer work Sun Rings. This is a string quartet movement, with pre-recorded audio from NASA missions and a moving cello solo from Mr. Zeigler. It proved the perfect palate cleanser to an evening of interpretation, a needed reminder that new music does not have to be jarring or intimidating to be beautiful.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.