Kronos Quartet's 40th anniversary show as gloriously eclectic as ever
At the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday, October 19
David Harrington celebrated a personal milestone at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on Saturday night—and it had nothing to do with premiering a new string quartet from Philip Glass.
“I just had the sudden realization that we had never played ‘Purple Haze’ at the Chan Centre,” Kronos’s founder noted as fellow violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang joined him on-stage for their third and final encore at one of his favourite venues. With that, the foursome ripped into a gritty, grinding rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s signature hit, a fitting end to a gloriously eclectic, masterfully played, and thoroughly entertaining evening of music.
At 40, Kronos remains fiercely democratic, fearlessly open-minded, and as committed to the truly new as ever. And even more than in Glass’s String Quartet No. 6, this was obvious from the group’s Canadian premiere of Nicole Lizée’s Hymnals.
Despite its ecclesiastical title, the inventive Montrealer’s score proved a decidedly profane mixture of the innovative and the cheesy. Lizée admits to an unhealthy, if ironic, interest in the middle of the musical road; her new piece, for example, employed not one but two Omnichords, played by Harrington and Yang. For those not familiar with the device, it’s a kind of electronic autoharp, designed to be played by musical novices and absolutely incapable of sounding edgy or harsh. Mixed with a sampled female voice cooing “No, no,” and layered with Lizée’s jittery string parts, its very banality was quite effectively unsettling.
“Music is a place,” Glass had pronounced during a pre-concert interview with CBC Radio host Eleanor Wachtel, and if that’s true, then Hymnals is a long-derelict fun fair, haunted by broken toys and echoes of the 1960s. In contrast, Glass’s String Quartet No. 6 was reminiscent of a more monumental landscape, perhaps some vast estuary where a great river ruminates and divides before spilling into the sea. Apart from its slower second movement—a beautiful showcase for new cellist Yang—the score features few marked shifts in tempo or texture. Instead, it’s a skein of subtle alterations, and it’s probably not fair to say a lot more based on a single hearing. Like much of Glass’s work, it splits the difference between mesmerizing and mind-numbing—with the determining factor, of course, being the quality of attention the listener brings to the work.
Technically, the 30-minute score is a masterpiece, and although it must be a brute to perform, Kronos was up to the task. I’m very much looking forward to spending more time with this piece once it’s recorded.
Most of the rest of the program, other than John Oswald’s appropriately phantasmagorical Spectre and Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s perhaps overly literal …hold me neighbour, in this storm…, was given over to short works in a variety of regional or historical idioms. In arranger Jacob Garchik’s rendition, the obscure blues singer Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” became a curious rubber-band ride, Dutt’s plucked viola twanging like a funked-up elastic ukulele. Dutt’s rich tone and beautiful bowing starred again in Stephen Prutsman’s take on the Ottoman composer and stringed instrument virtuoso Tanburi Cemil Bey’s “Evic Taksim”. Also featured were pieces from Iran, Greece, Colombia, and the Eastern European cantorial tradition.
In their original context, most of these tunes would have been animated or elongated by some kind of improvisation. That’s not part of the classical-music mandate, but Kronos’s reworkings were spirited and respectful enough that no listener felt short-changed. Or not, at least, after those three encores.