Long thought of as the most homogeneous instrumental ensemble known to Western music, the string quartet is best heard up close and personal in an actual chamber: a drawing room or music salon of the local gentry. Over the centuries, many composers have found the “perfect” ensemble to be especially suitable for some of their most imaginative and profound creations—from Haydn’s “Emperor” to Bartók’s fourth essay in the genre.
Nowadays, our finest “classical” quartets have been driven by economics into larger and larger halls where management’s bottom line improves at the expense of the shared intimacy between performer and devotee (cross-reference below).
Enter Kronos Quartet, who have embraced the changing concert-life environment by—instead of bringing the standard repertoire to a graying audience—creating or championing new works for listeners that may think “Death and the Maiden” is the latest video game.
For its stop at the Sean O’Sullivan Theatre, Kronos Quartet chose a program which gave the appreciative crowd a multitude of ideas, timbres and colours, employing the four instrumentalists as the basis rather than the totality of the art.
Rahul Dev Burman’s Aaj Ki Raat (also featured on the Kronos “Caravan” CD) seemed looser and more relaxed than the recording. Cellist Jennifer Culp (as she would in many of the selections) laid down her ostinato bass line with verve and unerring pulse, allowing her colleagues (all wore earpieces) to flow effortlessly along with the pre-recorded tabla track by Zakir Hussain. The sound was picked up and mixed by audio engineer Scott Fraser and sprinkled with subliminal rays by lighting designer Larry Neff. The result was a live “instant recording” that didn’t rely on the natural acoustics of the room (a blessing, in this case), but, necessarily, didn’t have the same personal effect found in the smaller “chambers” of centuries past. That is why, whether enjoying them at home on CD, or in their upcoming gig in a New Zealand volcano, the Kronos sound is largely consistent.
Following Burman, the angular repetitive lines of Gétatchèw Mèkurya’s Aha gèdawo flirted with monotony and suffered from the only significant ensemble discrepancies of the evening.
Hank Dutt’s solo lines in Flugufrelsarinn were a constant pleasure—the perfect foil to David Harrington’s dramatic contributions to the icy, reverb-rich soundscape. Fade to green indeed!
The “very newest” offering, Meredith Monk’s four-movement Stringsongs (receiving its North American première) was mixed: “cliff light” strident and uncertain in direction; “tendrils” more introspective, allowing Harrington’s warmth to lift the Satie-like melody off the page, but lapsing into collective shyness, parts of which felt like an “inside” joke; “obsidian chorale,” after its nearly change-perfect homophonic opening, morphed into the mundane; “phantom strings,” where Culp soared above and around her discoursing colleagues and provoked so much imagery that it should be “set to film.”
Peter Sculthorpe’s Jabiru Dreaming opened the second half and evoked memories of other conflict-inspired works such as R. Murray Schafer’s Threnody and Richard Strauss’ Metamorphosen (cross-reference below). Its brief moment of unison was a flicker of hope surrounded by sliding sirens and chants from children who are so often left to deal with the consequences of those “older and wiser.” It had much tribal power and provided Culp a true solo line that was exquisitely rendered and a beautiful contrast to the eagle-like squeals that preceded and Nachtmusik “bugs” which followed. After such an emotional journey, the final wash of blue was the perfect “curtain.”
CampoSanto was reinforced with many electronic clusters that convincingly led the ear from death to “a place you have never been before.” At times it seemed that a futuristic movie’s “studio” gig was in process; the visual images were as varied as those peering into the session. Then, from nowhere, the cello’s legato statement, echoing Beethoven’s orchestral codas, brought us, momentarily, back to earth before the red-hot pagan ritual with human voices—now joining the fray—drove the music to a heady close and, most certainly, to territory previously unknown. JWR