Friday, May 27, 2016

Kronos Quartet in Toronto

As I already indicated before, Kronos Quartet doesn't come to Toronto that frequently, so it was a real treat to see them Wednesday night.  (They are coming back to the TSO New Creations Festival in March 2017, so something to put in your calendar for sure.)

This actually makes the 4th time I've seen them live.  Somewhat astonishingly, this is not the string group I've seen the most.  That would be Pacifica Quartet, whom I've seen 7 or so times, mostly in Chicago.  In this post, I wrote somewhat extensively about the first time I ever saw Kronos (in Chicago in 2009) and then in Vancouver at the Chan Centre in 2013.  (I did completely drop the ball to see if BBC Radio 3 recorded Philip Glass's String Quartet 6 the following fall.  Oh well.)  In terms of drawing on parallels to this concert, there are probably two important threads.  First, that they had a moment where they swooped their bows, which made a faint whooshing sound, which would have been inaudible in a large venue.  (I'm not 100% sure, but it was probably Sigur Ros's Flugufrelsarinn (The Fly Freer).) Second, the third encore was Purple Haze.  It was pretty raucous and fun, and it is in these kind of covers that Kronos Quartet sort of intersected the Turtle Island String Quartet.  I'm not sure I even saw this review when I was writing my post, but here's another take on the Vancouver concert.

In 2014, I went down to UCLA to catch the Kronos Quartet.  The main reason was to see them perform Crumb's Black Angels, since I don't think they play this all that often (though they did play it a few times on that concert tour, which was to celebrate their 40th year as an ensemble).  I saw Oswald's Spectre and didn't like it any better this time around.  I wasn't that interested in the Penderecki piece, but I did like Philip Glass's Orion: China (with special guest Wu Man on pipa) and a piece they did in conjunction with Nels Cline.  I thought Black Angels was pretty great, though heavy of course.

Last night they did quite a few new pieces.  I'll have to look at which were Canadian premieres vs. Ontario premieres.  Certainly, many people felt the two collaborations with the Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq (Sivunittinni and Nunavut) were the concert highlights.  I thought they were interesting, but certainly a bit exhausting.  I'm glad to have seen her, but I can tell I would not want to go through an entire concert of her throat-singing.  Of the two, Nunavut worked better for me.

The oddest piece was definitely Mark Applebaum’s Darmstadt Kindergarten where the composer set the stage by saying he was exploring post-sound compositions!  So the members of the quartet literally would mime a number of actions, and the audience was taught the last few "bars."  It was vaguely amusing but kind of a waste of their talents.  Anyway, probably my favorite piece in the first half was actually Sunjata’s Time by Fodé Lassana Diabaté, and sadly they only played 2 of the 5 movements.  I'll definitely have to track that down.  I should mention that Kronos is going to be putting up all 50 of their new commissioned pieces up on their website, and I'll follow up soon with links to the ones that I thought were particularly interesting.  It looks like some will be on soundcloud but perhaps not all of them will be.  Here's the link to Sunjata’s Time.  Even more exciting for those that missed it is that the Toronto concert was livestreamed, and I'll link to that as well (at least if it can be repeated, though that isn't clear at the moment).

In the second half, they did Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words," which incredibly enough I had seen in Vancouver.  It stood out a bit more here.  I really enjoyed Laurie Anderson's Flow, but I wish it had been 2 or even 3 times longer.  I thought Mary Kouyoumdjian's Bombs of Beirut was ok, but it felt a bit derivative of Steve Reich's Different Trains.  This had already been a fairly long concert and the group came back for an encore inspired by an Indian violin player.  On top of a drone track, they played some interesting melodies and Sunny Yang made her cello into a tabla of sorts.  Anyway, the group came back again for a second encore and played Baba O'Reilly, saying that Pete Townsend had been inspired by Terry Riley.  It was a nice touch, and a bit comparable to how they closed out the Vancouver show in 2013.  But they still weren't done, and they brought back Tanya Tagaq to help them do Oswald's Spectre, so I've seen this piece three times now (and apparently the composer was in the house).  I didn't actually get out of the venue until 11 pm, but it was a pretty incredible night.

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