Kronos Quartet pushes classical music boundaries in Setnor Auditorium

Review: The Kronos Quartet performed Saturday in Setnor Auditorium as a part of the Belfer Audio Archive’s 50th anniversary celebration

The Grammy award-winning classical group, Kronos Quartet, played at 8 p.m. Saturday in Setnor Auditorium as a part of the Belfer Audio Archive’s 50th anniversary celebration. The group is known for its experimentation with sound, and this concert was no exception.

Lead violinist David Harrington said the concert was an attempt to travel back 100 years into time to the beginning of recorded music. Kronos’s selections were mainly arrangements composed during the World War I era. They were accompanied by the Belfer Audio Archive’s acoustic horns, which played the sound of an Edison cylinder’s crackle. It was as if Kronos had existed in that era, and these were their earliest recordings.

Photo: Taylor Baucom
The Kronos Quartet received two standing ovations at their performance in Setnor Auditorium Saturday.

An opening performance of the 1990 John Oswald composition “Spectre” acted as a perfect introduction, with a strange, droning foreboding that was complimented by Laurence Neff’s strobe-like lighting design. The sound of loud, harsh chords from old recordings soon drowned out the quartet, with the strobe showing brief flashes of the group pantomiming its performance.

The group then proceeded with a number of pieces from the early 20th century, starting with the lovely arrangement of “Smyrneiko Minore,” based on the version by Greek singer Marika Papagika. The traditional song, recorded during an era of Greek immigration to the United States, offered a sense of sadness. It suggested a lost past that also meant a new beginning.

Kronos continued with other alternatingly hopeful songs (the religious Polish song “Sim Sholom”) and mournful ones (the evocative Swedish folk song “Tusen Tankar”), reflecting an era that was as filled with turmoil as it was with hope.

That turmoil best came through on Anton Webern’s dissonant “Six Bagatelles,” with its violin wails and gnashes. Webern’s music was a clear influence on post World War II avant-garde classical music and composers, such as Krzysztof Penderecki, which makes sense. Although written in 1913, the song's unsettling sounds almost work as a prelude to World War I.

The Great War is more clearly reflected in impressionist composer Maurice Ravel’s “Trois beaux oiseaux du Paradis,” or “Three Lovely Birds of Paradise,” written in memory of Ravel’s three fallen friends during the war. Here, the group's strings play as a heavenly elegy for the dead. It was more gentle than at any other point in the concert.

The first half of the concert concluded with Michael Gordon’s “Clouded Yellow,” a piece originally written for Kronos. It served as another bit of time travel, where Kronos eased, then dragged the crowd back to the present.

For the second half of the concert, the ensemble then went through a new kind of time travel -- from the inception of Kronos to the present. Ken Benshoof’s “Traveling Music,” the first piece ever written for the group, is fluid and free as it moves from jazzy to more driving, asymmetrical rhythms.

The concert was slated to close with “Tenebre,” a more recent collaboration with The National’s Bryce Dessner from their upcoming album "Aheym". The piece plays like a strange dance with death, alternatingly frightening and accepting.

The piece’s bracing nature would have made for a perfect closing act if had they been satisfied to end there. But the group returned for two encores, both based on popular music. Harrington praised blues musician Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” as the work of a great composer, and indeed, the song’s playfulness was infectious.

“We’ve never played ‘Purple Haze’ in Setnor,” Harrington said before the group launched into Jimi Hendrix’s signature song. And yet Kronos' version sounded altogether new, like the soundtrack to a phantasmagoric horror film. Even when working with familiar material, Kronos seeks to reinvent.

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