Terms like “genre-bending” abound these days, and with good reason. Artists and ensembles the world over are cross-pollinating, merging musical styles and traditions to create new works that challenge staid artistic habits and expectations. Often the results are interesting and even revelatory.
Almost no one has been doing this longer and with more assurance and punch than the venerable Kronos Quartet. In recent years, through its “50 for the Future” program, the group has focused on mentoring young musicians and cultivating up-and-coming composers by commissioning new music. Some of the fruits of this project dropped from the tree Thursday night at Merkin Concert Hall, where the Kronos and young guest artists presented powerful contemporary works, three of them world premieres.
A Show with All the Trimmings: Opening Acts
On stage, the members of the Kronos displayed an understated, almost self-effacing mien. They let the music speak for itself. Nonetheless the concert felt like a real show, with the anticipation and accoutrements of a rock or pop concert: technical setup, colorful lighting, an audience that greeted the headliners with shouted enthusiasm, and two opening acts.
First, the Special Music School Quartet – comprised of students from Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School – gave a warm performance of Charlton Singleton’s “Testimony,” a bluesy mini-suite rooted in spirituals and Gullah rhythms. But if this work’s melodic friendliness led anyone to expect unchallenging or easily digested music to come, it was not so.
The dynamic and more polished Kodak Quartet (from Montclair State University’s John J. Cali School of Music, the concert’s co-presenter) followed with an outstanding reading of “Séraphîta” by Trey Spruance (of Secret Chiefs 3 and Mr. Bungle). Based, partially programmatically, on Balzac’s novel of that name, the piece presents the musicians with tricky polyrhythms and percussive drama, challenges they adroitly met. However, its three movements carried a ring of self-importance that turned me off. This feeling jibed with the composer’s discussion of the piece in the program, which read as almost a parody of an artist taking their art oh-so-seriously. But I look forward to hearing more from the Kodak, currently the graduate string quartet in residence at Montclair State University, home of the Cali School.
The Main Event: The Kronos Takes the Stage
No such self-regard accompanied the main event. The Kronos delivered a cornucopia of multicultural and very inventive new compositions, none of which felt over-intellectualized. the music was so invigorating that when a bevy of student musicians emerged to join the Kronos in Philip Glass’ “Quartet Satz” (also a Kronos commission) at the end, this new if not terribly fresh configuration of the composer’s comfortably familiar building blocks proved anticlimactic despite the students’ big sound and youthful energy.
It was the meat of the program that made the concert memorable. Composer Peni Candra Rini aims, with the intensely compelling “Maduswara,” to rejuvenate a particular dance form that accompanies Indonesian gamelan performances. No dancer appeared, but there are gamelan references and elements aplenty (including hardware: bells and little gongs). Alternately hypnotic and abundantly expressive, the piece juxtaposes repetitive motifs with powerful gestures and yearning melodies, with microtones creating otherworldly dissonances. The musical narrative distinctly evokes the storytelling dances of the rich gamelan tradition.
A Kaleidoscope of Musical Cultures and Traditions
Indeed it’s amazing how effortless the Kronos Quartet makes it seem to simulate other instruments and instrumentations. They did so as well with the world premiere of Reena Esmail’s arrangement of Aruna Narayan’s “Mishra Pilu,” based on the Indian raag of that name. Over a taped tanpura drone the strings conveyed the sounds of the sitar and even the tabla. The piece’s placement in the middle of the program forced excited listeners to switch abruptly to a contemplative frame of mind. But it proved a rewarding element of a wonderfully varied concert.
The world premiere of “branching patterns” by the capital-averse inti figgis-vizueta mingled more or less abstract simulations of the sounds of nature with what I imagined as the soundtrack of a dream. This music dispenses with rhythm in favor of clusters and broadsides of sound. At times the drip paintings of Jackson Pollock came to mind. But the ever-surprising harmonies sustained a curious kind of flow. I responded very viscerally.
Sky Macklay’s “Vertebrae” also made a strong impression. Through exploring the harmonic and atmospheric potential of scales – chromatic, major – it achieved ravishing original effects. Upward sweeps accompanied eerie clashes of notes that rubbed agitatedly against one another. Though rooted in some of music’s most basic constructions, the piece shot off into exotic, far-off worlds.
The brief and frenetically rhythmic “Little Black Book,” by electronic producer Jlin and arranged for string quartet by Jacob Garchik, featured much striking of bows on strings and a thundering bass drum kicked by cellist Sunny Yang. It’s probably safe to say there’s no era, style, or tradition the Kronos Quartet couldn’t encompass. With all the genre-bending out there, there’s still no one quite like the Kronos – still alive and literally kicking after 45 years. Visit their website for info on upcoming concerts.