Kronos Quartet at the Musical Instrument Museum

Kronos Quartet

Musical Instrument Museum 
May 20, 2011

San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet occupies an interesting niche in classical music. All four are adept players, and make their instruments (some of which are more than 300 years old) sing. But they don't play classical music from the canon. Instead of Bach, Mozart, and Rachmaninoff, Kronos Quartet ferrets out forgotten compositions from every corner of the world, and commissions original pieces by up-and-coming composers.

The quartet's concert at the illustrious Musical Instrument Museum was sold out, and their performance was heavy with soul but pristine in precision. The members of Kronos Quartet -- violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, viola player Hank Dutt, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler -- may have been rooted to their seats and sheet music, but the sounds from their instruments swirled around them and permeated the auditorium at MIM. The acoustics in that place are absolutely incredible.

A classical concert differs from a rock concert in many ways. It's more organic, both in instrumentation and amplification, and there are points where the music is almost silent. So it demands your attention, and there are certain things fans at classical concerts just don't do -- they don't stand during the show (or move very much, period), and they don't scream or whistle after songs (polite hand clapping is de rigueur). While that environment's not as exciting as a rock 'n' roll show, it is far more enchanting -- especially when it's Kronos Quartet, and every composition comes with a story.

Last night's concert began with two compositions created for Kronos Quartet -- the first, titled "Aheym," was composed by Bryce Dessner (of rock band The National); the second, "Harp and Altar," was created by Pennsylvania-born Missy Mazzoli.

Before beginning "Harp and Altar," the members of Kronos Quartet all closed their eyes and had a moment of silence, as if trying to meditate or focus. The piece, which Mazzoli called "a love song to the Brooklyn Bridge," started with some beautiful, slow, mournful cello, and a recording of a woman softly singing. The composition slowly grew into a swelling, ebbing tide of strings that reached a lurching, string-pounding crescendo before the music stopped to reveal a single high vocal note being carried over the speakers.

My favorite performance of the night was next, an anonymous piece composed in Iraq sometime in the 1980s called "Oh Mother, the Handsome Man Tortures Me." Kronos Quartet skillfully wrapped furious strings and hypnotic, snaking violins over steady, pre-recorded drum beats in the Iraqi choubi style (a steady, driving up-beat).

The group played the traditional "Smyrneiko Minore" next, using a 1918 vocal recording by Greek singer Marika Papagika. This composition was heady, filled with woozy violins; slow, rhythmic string plucking; and a meandering pace that suddenly galloped to a quick end.

In his introduction to the next composition, David Harrington said, "You know the world's changing when you learn how to play an instrument on YouTube. You also know the world's changing when your dad watches the video three or four times a day because it's his favorite song."

The song was "Lullabye," a traditional piece from Iran arranged by Jacob Garchik. It's a beautiful example of Iran's rich, Persian musical roots, as well as one of the few Middle Eastern folk songs interpreted in a Western classical vein. This was followed by an original composition by former Yugoslavia native Aleksandra Vrebalov, titled "...hold me, neighbor, in this storm..."

It was indeed a storm, as the epic composition (22 minutes total) told a tale of a country torn by ethnic and religious conflict through sound. It began with Harrington playing some somber notes on the gusle (a single-stringed Balkan instrument played with an ornate bow), and John Sherba banging steadily on a big double-headed drum called a tapan. Recordings of Serbian church bells and Islamic prayers overlapped in the background, as Sherba thumped out a slow war march. 

As "...hold me, neighbor, in this storm..." went through its movements, it escalated into a raging battle of violins and cello, then suddenly shut down on a sharp note. There was a long silence before the viola came in, buzzing like flies. The sounds of pre-recorded birds chirping and children playing were overtaken by the ticking of a clock and the sound of a woman singing in prayer. Then, another explosion, but this time, with a festive beat and storm of string plucking.

Kronos Quartet took an intermission before returning to play the fast and fun "El Sinaloense (The Man from Sinaloa)," "Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap" (which the quartet arranged), and Nicole Lizée's "Death to Kosmiche," another contemporary composition that utilizes obscure instruments (the Omnichord and the Stylophone).

By the end of the low-key evening, Kronos Quartet had put on a high-quality show. No stack amps or fireworks necessary.

Critic's Notebook
Last Night: Kronos Quartet at the Musical Instrument Museum
The Crowd: Mostly couples in their 40s and 50s wearing business casual attire, with a few 30something couples thrown in. The parking lot was filled with mini vans and sedans
Overheard in the Crowd: "Is she not wearing socks with her tennis shoes?" (referring to me, and yes, I was. They were ankle socks). 
Personal Bias: The only Kronos Quartet album I own is Henryk Gorecki: String Quartet No. 3, from which they played nothing.
Random Notebook Dump: "Epic acoustics in here!" (written at least three times in various places).

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Niki D'Andrea has covered subjects including drug culture, women's basketball, pirate radio stations, Scottsdale staycations, and fine wine. She has worked at both New Times and Phoenix Magazine, and is now a freelancer.
Contact: Niki D'Andrea