The Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA brought a fantastic weekend of celebration to Los Angeles to honor the 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet in their home away from home at Royce Hall. The March 14 program featured a Los Angeles premiere by Phillip Glass and the world premiere of a composition written and performed by guitarist Nels Cline. The other works were from 40 years of experimental compositions written or arranged for their unique electronic mix of musical chamber culture.
Violinist David Harrington formed the Kronos Quartet in 1973, inspired by the work of George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” the centerpiece of this program. Other members of the group are John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola) and Sunny Yang (cello). Yang was performing in Royce Hall for the first time, so perhaps she had a lot on the line this night. Her performance was extraordinary. In almost every piece on the program, my attention was drawn to her, either for her dynamic energy or her virtuoso cello technique. She was the most lyric of the players, and her instrument had a mellowness that transcended the edgy gain of the genre.
The opening piece, Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Quartetto per archi,” had all of the mannerisms typical of the 1960s, where the possibilities of sound stretched beyond the scope of mere training. The audience and performers viewed a giant score that was scrolled across a large screen to the back of the stage. The quartet played facing the projection with the audience. Seeing the brilliance of Penderecki’s notation and hearing its musical realization significantly enhanced the experience. One did not need fluency in traditional notation to follow the score and its implications.
John Oswald’s “Spectre” from Kronos’ “Short Stories” was a unique blend of live performance with prerecorded materials culminating in a giant sonic whirl of more than a thousand melodic reflections. The climax was a dramatic break, switching from real time to virtual time. In stroboscopic synchrony, the performers made exaggerated gestures with the positions of their bodies and strokes of their bows. The effect was dramatic as the music was pulled away, physically separated from the musicians into a virtual smudge, only then to end gently as it returned to the real touch of the progenitors. The technical skill to seamlessly hand off the music from the humans to the machine then back again was impressive. The choreography and lighting were stunning in their aesthetic; simple, yet effective.
A highlight of the night was the Los Angeles premiere of Philip Glass’ “Orion: China” (arr. Michael Riesman) featuring pipa virtuoso Wu Man. Wu Man’s technique was superhuman. Her lute-like instrument had a crisp sound that responded intimately to her touch. The harmonies were traditional, thus leaving expressive melodic lines with their ornamentation and arpeggiation as the essence of her art. The tuneful folksy quality was an effective vehicle to showcase her extraordinary artistry and mastery of this unusual instrument. The music brought out a lighter side of Kronos, who followed her lead on a wonderfully fanciful musical journey.
A reflective mood emerged with “Sim Sholom” by cantor Alter Yechiel Karniol (arr. Judith Berkson) featuring Yang as soloist. Her instrument sings with a beautiful warm tone. Her soulful interpretation was moving.
“Prelude From Tristan und Isolde” by Richard Wagner (arr. Aleksandra Vrebalov) highlighted Kronos’ work with film music. The arrangement was astringent, and set the tone for the remainder of the program.
“Views From Here to the Heavens (for Scott Fraser)” with guitarist Nels Cline was in a class by itself, showing another unique side to the group. Cline’s finely nuanced manipulation of his instrument’s electromagnetic feedback provided a continuo for the ensemble. It was intriguing to hear the sound change corresponding to a controlled ballet of external devices. The sound was harmonically complex and full, usually continuous and ever-changing. Cline demonstrated his virtuosity in an all-out metal lead guitar solo that was blistering and smooth.
George Crumb’s 1970 composition “Black Angels” for amplified string quartet echoed the emotions wrought from the Vietnam War era. Explosive noises and voices, gongs and evocative reference to earlier music make “Black Angels” inherently dramatic. The stringed instruments hung suspended from ropes. The players disconnected them to play, and rehung them when they turned to gongs or crystal glasses later in the piece. Hot amplification and harsh white lighting made “Night of the Electric Insects” literally itchy, while more subtle effects and simple choreography gave a delicacy to other passages. The musicians huddled in a trio for “Pavana Lachrymae,” while Harrington played a scratchy electric song over their classical references. Later the quartet regrouped as Sherba soloed from the opposite side of the stage. Tuned crystal glasses were staged elevated in the background and obscured in black draping until their unveiling midway through the cycle, when they were illuminated with brilliant white light and bowed to produce an eerie Theremin-like sound. The crystal glasses tinkled at the end, like a toast to that fateful inspiration 40 years ago.
Bravo to Kronos on a fabulous 40 years of truly unique music and performance art!
~Theodore Bell/Culture Spot LA
For information about upcoming CAP UCLA events, visit www.cap.ucla.edu.