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Saturday, November 12, 2005
Kronos Quartet: San Diego Nov. 9

In case you haven't heard, the Kronos Quartet has a new cellist: Jeffrey Zeigler. On the basis of his performance Wed. evening, he's a worthy successor to Jennifer Culp and Joan Jeanrenaud.

The Kronos Quartet hadn't been in San Diego County in 11 years; they last appeared the inaugural year of the California Center for the Arts for the world premiere of John Adams' John's Book of Alleged Dances, which the Center had commissioned.

The program Wed. night was the typical (at least for San Diego) Kronos mix of brief pop/ethnic/classical fusion pieces, and a couple of longer, "serious" works: Schnittke's 3rd Quartet and Reich's Triple Quartet, and I was there to review it for

Of note was that most of the audience consisted of twenty-somethings, maybe even late teens. I suspect this had something to do with their appearance on the UC San Diego campus (the University Events group, which books entertainment of all kinds, brought them here: not a UCSD academic dept.) I don't know how many kids were exposed to contemporary classical music, or ANY classical music for that matter, for the first time that evening, but I saw no walk-outs, and they all dug the Sigur Ros and Hendrix and world music arrangements.

About their fusion pieces:

Regular readers know my aversion to classical crossover efforts, but ladies and gentlemen, the Kronos Quartet is the real thing, a successful hybridization of classical music with rock, with jazz, and with popular and traditional music from around the world. When they play Jimi Hendrix's interpretation of the Star-Spangled Banner, as they did for an encore, it rethinks and expands what a string quartet can do just as Hendrix did for the electric guitar. This is no cutesy Bond-like pop pabulum, but a visceral, frightening, and exciting arrangement, which, thanks to their wizard of a sound man Mark Grey, screams and overwhelms every bit as much as Hendrix did. This wasn't a wimpy classical music approximation of Hendrix's
power--it was the real undiluted stuff.

One of the keys to the Kronos's success in this area is that they don't think of it as "crossover" music. They seem genuinely concerned with extending the repertory and the techniques of the string quartet, and this concern translates into viable musical hybrids. When they perform music that demands exotic scales, they play those non-European notes. They make a genuine attempt on their instruments to capture the inflection, the sense of time, and, if possible, the timbres associated with popular and indigenous traditional music.

About Schnittke's 3rd quartet:

While the four string quartets of Alfred Schnittke are all worth
programming, it is his Third Quartet which usually appears in concert halls.
(Other string quartets have previously performed it in San Diego). Out of all of
his quartets, the Third has the most conservative melodic and harmonic gestures,
making it a safe programming choice (not that the Kronos Quartet tries to play
it safe!).

However, its form is extremely radical. The composition
begins with a cadence: the first thing we hear is what sounds like an ending!
It's clearly in an unironic Renaissance style (it is, in fact, a literal quote
from a work by Orlando Lassus), with nothing at all to suggest that it was
written in 1983. Then we hear thefirst theme of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge, which,
on a concert of new music, still sounds surprisingly modern. This is followed by
the D-E flat-C-B motive that Shostakovich repeatedly used (and which figures in
other Schnittke works as well). The rest of the quartet skillfully develops
these three ideas, using a combination of earlier musical styles (including an
allusion to Wagner) and 20th-century devices. Schnittke called this technique
"polystylism," and the Third Quartet is his most accessible polystylistic
chamber piece.

While many of Schnittke's polystylistic works are cruelly
ironic, or pessimistic in their evocation of the past as something beautiful
which has been lost, the Third Quartet explores the musical correspondences of
the three quotations in the opening measures. This abstract compositional
treatment makes Schnittke's Third Quartet, if not exactly optimistic, then the
least sarcastic or depressing of his polystylistic works. The Kronos Quartet has
performed this work since 1987, and they bring confidence, cohesion, and
profundity to it, no easy task considering how the musical styles within the
Third Quartet jump immediately from one era to another.

About the Triple Quartet by Steve Reich:

While I have nothing against the Third Quartet, my favorite Schnittke quartet is his Second. It would have made an interesting companion to the concluding work on the program, Steve Reich's Triple Quartet. Reich has written that one of the influences on him as he composed his Triple Quartet in 1999 was Schnittke's Second Quartet, a work that spurred him to write denser, more complex music. (Although Reich lives in New York City, the place in America where Schnittke's music was and is most frequently performed, Reich had never encountered one of Schnittke's works until he received the Kronos Quartet's recording of the complete Schnittke string quartets from a friend. This lack of knowledge of one's contemporaries is more prevalent among big-name composers than you'd think; I recall an internationally famous American composer back in 1982 asking my undergraduate composition teacher, So, what do know about Steve Reich's music?")

The Triple Quartet uses three string quartets, two of them recorded (appearing in left and right on-stage speakers). Like Reich's other works incorporating pre-recorded music, a live performance is much more illuminating than the recording. The distinction between the live group and the recorded groups are clear, and the material between the three groups is more sharply delineated, clarifying some of the textures that blur together on the recording.

The harmonies are crunchier than one typically associates with Reich; one of the other influences on this work is the savage String Quartet no. 4 by Bartok. Also unusual for Reich is his use of a 19th-century formal device in the first and third movements: the keys traversed outline a diminished seventh chord.

The second movement consists of a slow, long melody, repeated and delayed by all 12 instruments, forming a thick, fluctuating, and harmonically static web. The outer movements are driven by short, crisply interlocking chords in the left and right groups, treating the 8 recorded string instruments as if they were marimba or piano parts from one of Reich's 1970s masterpieces.

The Kronos Quartet commissioned the Triple Quartet, and they must surely be the work's best interpreters. Mark Grey expertly manned the soundboard all evening, but it was particularly crucial in Reich's work.

My complete review here.


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