Kronos Quartet enchants with Indonesian singer-composer Peni Candra Rini’s world premiere

United StatesUnited States Various: Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba [violins], Hank Dutt [viola], Paul Wiancko [cello]), Peni Candra Rini (voice), Leslie Gray, Andy McGraw, Midiyanto (shadow theater). Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 2.3.2024. (HS)

The cat ‘scherzo’ from gfedcba by Michael Gordon © Lenny Gonzalez

Severiano Briseño – ‘El Sinaloense’ (arr. Osvaldo Golijov)
Sofia Gubaidulina – Quartet No.4
Peni Candra Rini‘Segara Gunung’ (world premiere, arr. Jacob Garchik and Andy McGraw)
Steve Reich – Triple Quartet
Michael Gordon – from gfedcba
Nicole Lizée – ‘ZonelyHearts’

In its fifty years, the Kronos Quartet has been a pathbreaker. Not only have they commissioned hundreds of works from leading contemporary composers, they normalized audio amplification in live performances, and used lighting and visual assets to expand their undeniable virtuosity on their own instruments.

They always surprise. A wide-ranging program in Berkeley acknowledged the group’s longevity with works they commissioned, among them Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet from 1999 and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Quartet No.4 from 1993. The highlight of the program was a world premiere steeped in Indonesian gamelan elements by the multitalented Indonesian singer-composer Peni Candra Rini.

The daughter of a renowned East Java shadow puppeteer, Rini is celebrated as a vocal soloist in a traditional form of gamelan. Her voice proved extraordinary, with an Yma Sumac-like range that soars easily into ultra-soprano heights and finds subtleties in a sultry mid-range, all with impressive precision in pitch. Her melodies entrance with conversational simplicity, but she is not shy about incorporating deftly-placed melisma and ornamentation.

Peni Candra Rini in world premiere of Segara Gunung with the Kronos Quartet © Lenny Gonzalez

And, of course, there was a visual aspect – eye-catching shadow puppetry by a crew of three, enlarged and mirrored on a big screen above the musicians. The puppetry completes a sensuous presentation, with backgrounds of trees and seascapes moving across a screen behind silhouettes of animals, leaves, fans and people. The four-part piece, ‘Segara Gunung’ (Ocean-Mountain), traces concerns with changing climate, of special importance to an island nation.

The instrumental arrangements by Jacob Garchik (a Brooklyn-based film composer who has adapted dozens of pop and jazz pieces for Kronos) and Andy McGraw (chair of music at the University of Richmond, with expertise in East Asian music) find ingenious ways to double and harmonize with Rini’s voice.

I could have wallowed happily in Rini’s voice alone, but the context added so much to the delight and richness of this work. All the while, Kronos’s sound fit easily into the necessary rhythms and shapes.

Another premiere, a short movement by Michael Gordon that served as a sort of preview to a more expansive piece, timed a bouncy nursery-rhyme-like ditty to a video loop of an adorable kitten lapping milk from a spoon. Such social media memes, apparently, can inspire composers. The balance of the work, titled gfedcba and destined to cover about thirty movements, is still in progress.

A brief video documentary summarizing the quartet’s history and personnel opened the proceedings, followed by ‘El Sinaloense’ a swaggering 1940s Mexican popular song arranged for Kronos by Osvaldo Golijov. Gubaidulina’s thornily dissonant one-movement Quartet No.4 made a jarring neighbor to the oh-so-tuneful and rhythmic pieces surrounding it, but perhaps its density underlined the sheer beauty of Segara Gunung.

Reich’s energized, minimalist Triple Quartet, which layers the live quartet against parts prerecorded by the same musicians, emerged with all its vitality to start the second half. The composer may have done this form better with ‘Different Trains’, but it was certainly worth revisiting such a landmark work.

The program concluded with the weirdest piece of the evening: ‘ZonelyHearts’ by Nicole Lizée, a composer who builds whole worlds out of vernacular sources such as early MTV videos, thrash metal, 1960s psychedelia and outmoded technology. Set to a surreal video inspired by the 1960s television show ‘The Twilight Zone’, complete with a Rod Serling-esque narrative introduction, the musicians used paper-towel tubes to bow their instruments, played miniature TV sets as percussion and sang into 1950s telephones. Apparently, Lizée’s music aims at Generation X, which clearly is not mine.

Audience members who slipped out during that one missed something special by not staying for the encore – ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix, in an arrangement that dates from the quartet’s eponymous 1986 album. Bathed in violet light, the quartet dug into the hard-rock groove in a winning mash-up of classical players and high-level rock music.

Harvey Steiman

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