The Kronos Quartet are one of the longest-established contemporary music groups, having been active for 38 years with very few changes of players. This concert contained three pieces, representing the different aspects of the quartet’s repertoire: a relatively new piece, an established repertoire piece and an important earlier piece from the contemporary quartet literature.
The newer piece was …hold me neighbor, in this storm…, by Aleksandra Vrebalov. This piece took its inspiration from Balkan folk music, and incorporated two Balkan instruments, the string instrument known as the Gusle and the bass drum known as the Tapan, which were played by members of the quartet. Furthermore, various recorded sounds were played at moments in the piece: bells, chants et cetera.
The piece fell into a number of well-defined sections, each with a different kind of material. Many of these were broadly folk music inspired, though without resorting (except perhaps in one section) to “cheap imitation” of folk styles. The piece opened with a solo on the Gusle, which was not used elsewhere in the piece; this was followed by a number of sections that explored different materials, ranging from rhythmically-driven sections with foot-stamping and the drum playing an important role, to more delicate harmonically-driven sections.
Whilst the individual sections were well written, the abrupt change from section-to-section, with little cross-reference between different sections, meant that the overall impact of the piece was less powerful than the individual sections. The piece felt the need for some “connective tissue” to join the various sections.
Furthermore, the use of the folk instruments was in the end rather clumsy—they played an important role earlier in the piece but gradually seemed to be forgotten. Perhaps it would have been better had they either been distilled out entirely, and used just for inspiration, or else integrated more thoroughly throughout the piece. Nonetheless, at its strongest points the piece was very emotionally powerful and was well received by the audience.
The second piece was Different Trains by Steve Reich, a piece that has been associated with the Kronos Quartet since its premiere in 1988. This piece is based on recordings of speech, both people talking about American trains and, contrastingly, people talking about their experience of being transported to concentration camps by train during World War II. These recordings are played back, combined with recordings of train sounds and both live and prerecorded quartet with the musical material drawn from melodies from the speech. Overall this combination of elements comes together to form an emotionally powerful work.
The piece was very well performed. One particular challenge for pieces such as this is integrating the sound of the pre-recorded quartet sounds with the live quartet, a challenge that was met in this performance.
The final piece in the concert was Black Angels, a 1970 work by George Crumb. This is a complex piece, involving the quartet playing both their instruments and using a wide variety of other material—gongs. maracas and a selection of wine glasses tuned to various notes by the addition of various amounts of water. By contrast with the first piece, this integration of different elements worked much more coherently. This was down largely to the careful theatricality with which the quartet structured the piece, with the players grouping together in sub-groups to play certain sections, and hanging instruments from strings whilst attending to the various percussion instruments. This was particularly powerful in the section where three of the players played on the wine glasses, which were revealed from underneath a cloth and illuminated from underneath to great effect.
The piece is broken down into a large number of sections, however these flow together to make a coherent whole. Whilst the piece takes its inspiration from various “new age” concepts, it has a depth and thoughtfulness that is rarely found in music that it rooted in these ideas.
The encore piece was an excerpt from the music for the film The Fountain, written by Clint Mansell, best known as one of the key members of the band Pop Will Eat Itself, and now a well-established film composer. This was rather disappointing, being a rather unabashed kitschy piece, reminiscent of the “orchestral rock” albums that were around in the 1980s. Perhaps in a different context it might have worked well, but it felt rather slight at the end of a substantial concert.
Overall, an excellent concert that was well received by a packed audience.