Kronos Quartet Grabs the Heart with ‘Silent Cranes’

United StatesUnited States Vrebalov, Knox, Rajam, Meredith, Glass, Meeropol, Kouyoumdjian: Kronos Quartet [David Harrington, John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello], presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley. 3.12.2016. (HS)

Aleksandra Vrebalov: My Desert, My Rose
Garth Knox: Satellites: III. “Dimensions”
N. Rajam (arr. Reena Esmail): Dadra in Raga Bhairavi
Anna Meredith: Tuggemo (world premiere)
Philip Glass: String Quartet no. 7
Abel Meeropol (arr. Jacob Garchik): Strange Fruit
Mary Kouyoumdjian: Silent Cranes

Projection Design: Laurie Olinder
Poetry: David Barsamian
Lighting Design: Brian H. Scott
Sound Design: Brian Mohr

Kronos Quartet continues to stretch the boundaries of what it means to be a string quartet. Their wide-ranging program Saturday night at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, presented by Cal Performances, adjusted lighting, processed their sound through huge speakers and, for the final work, added projected imaging that were moving in both senses of the word.

Almost all written within the past two years, the program included a world premiere and two Bay Area premieres, ranging from short pieces that explored timbres and offbeat musical ideas, to a majestic threnody for the Armenian genocide of the early 20th century. It was never boring, and always musically taut and focused.

Before Silent Cranes, which closed the program, came a jazz-inflected arrangement of Strange Fruit, Abel Meeropol’s blues-drenched gut-punch of a song about lynchings in the American South. Best known from Billie Holiday’s poignant 1939 recording, the song gets a quiet, doleful setting in Jacob Garchik’s arrangement, commissioned for this quartet. Garchik weaves the melody into unobtrusive harmonies that sometimes move in unexpected directions, and it set a somber mood.

In Silent Cranes, Mary Kouyoumdjian infused the strings’ music with Armenian folk songs of the era, against a background of contemporaneous recordings of the songs, and a track of wrenching and graphic recorded testimony by eyewitnesses to the Armenian genocide that began in Turkey in 2015. Haunting beauty at the beginning and the end rose to a cacophonous climax before receding into a transcendent finish. Throughout, Laurie Olinder’s projected visuals overlaid Oriental rugs with faces of victims, splotches of red evoking everything from red flowers to pomegranates. Graphic scenes of death accompanied the climax.

Why cranes? The composer notes, “[In] the Armenian folk song ‘Groung’ (‘Crane’), the singer calls out to the migratory bird, begging for word from their homeland, only to have the crane respond with silence and fly away.” The song found its way into three of the piece’s four movements.

The third, “[with blood-soaked feathers],” built to a long and brutal clash of clashing harmonies, painfully colliding with overlapping spoken texts. The finale’s quiet and expressive finale, played against the hopeful words of journalist David Barsamian, created a balm for the memories evoked in the first three movements—without erasing them completely.

The program opened with several choices from Kronos’ current five-year Fifty for the Future project, which commissioned 50 composers—25 women and 25 men—to write works suitable for musicians learning to emulate Kronos’ style. (The sheet music, recordings, videos, and other learning materials are available free on the ensemble’s website.)

In Aleksandra Vrebalov’s My Desert, My Rose, the musicians gradually brought lyrical, long-limbed independent lines into rhythmic focus that drove the proceedings to a juicy close. “Dimensions,” the finale of Garth Knox’s Satellites, played with various bowing techniques: the rhythmic staccato of bouncing the bow in a single spot, moving the bow up and down and across, and turning it wood-first (known as “col legno”). Each produced its own timbres, riding jaunty rhythms to a winking conclusion.

The newest commission, Anna Meredith’s Tuggemo, played against a background track of 1980s synth music, harkening to the pop era’s insistent rhythms and artificial sounds. The composer dwelled on large swiping glissandos, and the rhythms became so repetitive that they stunted any musical development.

More compelling, Reena Esmail’s spookily evocative arrangement of the celebrated Hindustani violinist N. Rajam’s Dadra in Raga Bhairavi created an extraordinary seven minutes. To a background track of an oud playing a sustained drone, Harrington’s solo violin’s dark tone relished the twists and turns of the colorful slow-ish raga theme. Yang accompanied with a reasonable facsimile of the sound of a tabla, playing on the body and strings of her cello. (I’m definitely adding this piece to my iTunes rotation.)

The first half ended with a lovely and warm traversal of Philip Glass’ single-movement String Quartet No. 7. Its gentle rhythms and ear-caressing, interwoven melodic strands evoked a sunny afternoon in the woods.

Harvey Steiman

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