The Kronos Quartet’s second Koerner Hall concert on June 11 followed the same two-part format as the first: five works for string quartet alone, and then a set featuring the guest group led by the Afghan rubab (plucked lute) virtuoso Homayun Sakhi.
Sakhi proved to be at the top of his game rendering all the salient parts of an exhilarating Afghani version of Purya Kalyan, a raga introduced to Afghanistan by Hindustani musicians. The featured work this evening was however Sakhi’s very effective multi-sectional work Rangin Kama (2008) scored for Sakhi’s trio and Kronos. Backstage after the show I overheard Sakhi lightheartedly admonishing his fine tabla player, “I’m going to have to give you a speeding ticket!” Suffice it to say that there was more than one speedy soloist on the stage that night.
I found Kronos Quartet the next day at the Luminato festival stage in a cool and breezy David Pecaut Square. This time they alternated possession of the stage with Toronto’s Annex Quartet who recently joined the Kronos in a residency at Carnegie Hall.
Among the open-air concert’s delightful surprises was the premiere of Montreal composer Nicole Lizee's new work for Kronos “Death to Kosmische.” To those familiar with Lizee's compositions it will come as no shock that she made very effective use of a hand-held portable vinyl record player manipulated by one of the Kronos musician, turntablist style. Her retro-electronica sounding score even used a vintage looking synthesizer to amusing effect. Thanks to the multiple video cameras trained on the performers and projected on the large screen all in the two thousand or so audience could clearly see the boys with their electronic toys, having fun – as were we.
I can’t but reflect in retrospect on the peaceful music-filled outdoor atmosphere I was part of in downtown Toronto. The same night in Vancouver thousands were rioting in the streets, burning, looting and harming fellow citizens.
The inclusiveness of the Kronos Quartet’s repertoire has inspired many. It prompted The New Yorker to opine that Kronos is taking the “self-conscious “classical” string quartet,” retooling it to “become a kind of all-terrain vehicle in contemporary culture.”
We had a lesson in contemporary culture several ways on June 15, in the last of the Kronos concerts at the Jane Mallet Theatre. This time their guest was pipa (Chinese lute) master Wu Man. Kronos began with Canadian premieres of string quartets by American minimalist masters Terry Riley and Philip Glass and the well-known Chinese avant guard composer Tan Dun. The three movements of “The Cusp of Magic” by Riley proved to the most substantial work of the set, replete with ritual rattling, and a scene from the nursery complete with amusing toys and recorded baby sounds.
The second half of the concert showcased the final and grandest premiere of Kronos’ Toronto residency. The four-part A Chinese Home was conceived by Wu Man, David Harrington and opera director Chen Shi-Zheng. Verging on mini-opera in scope A Chinese Home is part string quartet arrangement of Chinese songs, part travelogue, part history and part social commentary. The entire work was accompanied by a well-conceived and executed video illustrating the themes in each part. The versatile Wu Man played expressive pipa throughout, with flashes of virtuosity when called for. She also sang a knock-dead version of an early 1940s Shanghai torch song in a smoky alto, dressed in a cheongsam (Part 2, “Shanghai”).
The opening section “Return” showcased nine arrangements of Chinese regional and Buddhist liturgical melodies deftly demonstrating that the pipa can coexist harmoniously with the string quartet.
“The East is Red” part 3, in contrast, featured a series of arrangements of music popular during the time of Chairman Mao’s rule, the musicians dressed in requisite Mao jackets. There was a moving moment at the end of Wang Xiren’s song “The Sun Is Reddest, Chairman Mao is Closest.” The song was composed to mourn the absence of the formerly omnipresent Mao, giving voice to the grief and bewilderment of millions, yet when Kronos musicians stood up air-bowing their imaginary instruments with the strains of the laudatory song continuing on the PA, an air of irony also descended.
The closing section “Made in China” was the most surreal and performance oriented of them all. The programme notes state, “At the moment, China’s most widely diffused cultural products are toys.” Leaving their string instruments and Mao jackets behind, the four Kronos musicians systematically disgorging the contents of four large suitcases: moving, flashing and buzzing electronic toys. They literally filled the stage with them.
All the while on stage right Wu Man played screeching power chords on a plugged-in purpose-built electric pipa suggesting the inescapable noise of construction and urban life.
The seen-it-all Toronto audience loved it. They called the artists back for three “curtain calls” (the Jane Mallet has no curtain).
As David Harrington put it, "I've always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be."
In a world of declining audiences for classical music and faltering orchestras, clearly he’s onto something - right.