Monday, October 21, 2013

Kronos Quartet at 40

On Saturday, I was at an "event," perhaps the biggest classical music event of the season in Vancouver.  Kronos Quartet was playing at the Chan Centre and they were presenting the world premiere of Philip Glass's 6th String Quartet and the Canadian premiere of Nicole Lizée's Hymnals.  In general, for the other pieces they dug into their world music bag, although for one that was a transcription of the song Last Kind Words, it actually sounded more like something Turtle Island String Quartet would do (I wonder if they are even still around -- I saw them over 15 years ago at the Montreal Jazz Fest).  Kronos actually gave three encores, with the last one being Purple Haze (Harrington kicking it off by saying they had never played Purple Haze at the Chan Centre).  To make it feel even more like an event, before the concert, Philip Glass was interviewed for a public radio show that will be going out in Nov. (if I can track down the info, I will paste it in here.)  I thought the interview had its moments, and Glass certainly seems like someone who has managed to work with some interesting characters over the years.

It's really hard to characterize his 6th String Quartet.  I tried hard to focus on it, but then would find myself listening too intently.  There are sections that feature serialism.  In general, he has moved away from minimalism, which to my mind is necessary for writing for such an ensemble.  Why bother just stringing together a few notes on end?  So the Glass 6th string quartet is being played around the world, including Stanford, Urbana, IL, Las Vegas and London (I wonder what the odds are that BBC radio will get permission to broadcast the UK premiere next May -- something to try to keep my eye on).  Even Durham, NC, and I told my dad he might want to check them out when they play at Duke.

While the Vancouver concert was officially sold out, there were a few no shows.  Indeed, the woman next to me moved down a row at intermission.  I also don't remember the Chan Centre being quite so cold...

From a pure enjoyment perspective, I liked Lullaby arr. by Jacob Garchik, Purple Haze (this was the 3rd! encore), the Glass piece and then a Colombian cowboy song (the second encore).  I generally didn't like the stuff that relied so heavily on electronics and pre-recorded material (obviously this is not an absolute, since I think Different Trains is pretty amazing).  One thing I didn't quite expect was how much they would have video behind them (mostly just changing colours or abstract line patterns).  I certainly didn't see anything like that the first time I saw them (when I don't think they had any pre-recorded material). I really did not like John Oswald's Spectre, which I thought was a complete waste of time.  It actually got me wondering if they had ever rejected a piece that they had commissioned or requested that the composer go rework it. (Glass hinted that there were a few technical things they asked him to change, but that for the most part they though the piece a good one, though very challenging to play.)

I really was not that taken by Hymnals.  It just sort of seemed like the kitchen sink school of composing where all kinds of disparate elements are forced together, and there are all these sudden tonal shifts.  Now it wasn't as bad as the Unsuk Chin I saw the CSO perform (really I now avoid anything by her) but I wasn't that moved. Aleksandra Vrebalov's "hold me, neighbor, in this storm" is a similar piece, though slightly more organic in nature.  I wish they had performed something else.  One thing that was a bit droll, is that John Sherba bangs on this drum and shouts in a Japanese fashion.  I was sort of imagining that he was getting out his frustration for being second fiddle (literally) for 40 years...

What is particularly curious is that I dug out my concert program from the previous (and only) time I saw Kronos -- in Chicago at the Art Institute actually (not the CSO Symphony Hall).  And they played Vrebalov's "hold me, neighbor, in this storm" that time too.  What are the odds?  After reading this, I did vaguely recall someone banging on a drum, but it was a smaller space and Sherba didn't shout nearly as loud.  That concert (April 2009) had a couple of other world music pieces (from Iraq and India), a piece from Sigur Ros (Flugufrelsarinn -- apparently only available as download), and then quite a bit from John Zorn's score for The Dead Man. Then they ended with the Vrebalov piece.  I vaguely remember liking the Zorn and the first few pieces.  I don't recall for certain if they did an encore, but I think they did.  What I definitely recall is that for part of one piece, they swished their bows in the air rather than actually playing anything (this might or might not have been for the encore).  I wonder if this would come across at all if heard on a recording?

Unfortunately, I never heard them with Joan Jeanrenaud, who retired from the group in 1999 (after being diagnosed with MS!).  Since she has left, the cello chair has been in pretty constant rotation.   I saw Jeffrey Zeigler in 2009 and this time around Sunny Yang was in the cello chair.  Perhaps she'll stick.  One really intriguing bit of news that I just learned was that for their latest album, they asked for a quintet piece (sort of in the lineage of the Schubert quintet) and that Jeanrenaud played on the album and in a concert or two with them.  I probably really will need to track that down.

There is quite a bit to say about Kronos, but I'll try to keep things fairly brief.  They are doing more concerts than ever in their 40th year.  The upcoming concert on Dec. 7 in Berkeley looks particularly tasty as they are going to be performing Crumb's Black Angels with a different piece by Glass and one by Riley.  So essentially no world music on tap, though perhaps as an encore.  If I didn't think I was already coming down to the Bay in April for the Stoppard thing, I might make another trip for that.  So tempting... And actually it turns out that they are also doing Black Angels (and the Glass piece) at UCLA in March.  That may even be more tempting, though I don't see how I could make that concert either.  Hmmm.

Anyway, while I don't dig it out all that often, the Kronos at 25 box set was such an amazing thing and so well put together.  (I picked it up used in Chicago at a very good price around 1999.) However, this afternoon I was kind of astonished to find that one disc is completely given over to Feldman's Piano and String Quartet.  I just picked this (the Feldman) up in Chicago a month ago, and it turns out I didn't need to.  Drat.  Well, it didn't cost very much (it was used) and it is in decent shape, so I will trade it in next time I am at Sikora's downtown.

I've read that there will be a Kronos @40 box set forthcoming from Nonesuch, but I can't find out any details.  Obviously, from my perspective I would prefer that it have no overlap with the Kronos 25 box, even if that meant leaning very heavily on their world music recordings.  That may just not make any sense though.  A Kronos box set, probably needs Different Trains in it and some of the earlier Glass quartets and probably the Gorecki and maybe a Volans piece etc. etc. etc.  I think for the time being, I will hold off on ordering the Music of Vladimir Martynov (with that quintet piece) or the Gorecki String Quartet #3, as those would be likely candidates for the box, along with Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite. And possibly Harry Partch’s U.S. Highball in place of Different Trains.  But I do hope the contents are released soon, so I can decide if this is a must-have or not.

Hold the presses -- I finally found the details on the box set.  It is quite a disappointment to me.  From the press release:
The set will bring together five of the quartet’s most admired albums – Pieces of Africa, Nuevo, Floodplain, Caravan, and Night Prayers – with a sixth disc devoted to new tracks from a variety of sources, many of which have never been released on Nonesuch before. Among the selections will be the group’s first recordings with Sunny Yang.

I have 3 of the 5 world music albums and don't rate the others quite as highly.  (I would imagine a fair number of people would be in a similar situation.)  Then you have one CD that can't be found anywhere else, so you have to decide how much duplication you can stand.  It doesn't help that these CDs have generally glutted the used market (perhaps not Floodplain), so they will have almost no trade-in value if you do decide to go for the set.  I really can't see picking this up, though it depends on the final pricepoint and what is on the last CD.  Anyway, it just strikes me as a major missed opportunity, though it clearly means I can go off and get the more classical pieces without worrying about duplication on that end.

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