For the better part of last week the Kronos Quartet were collectively resident artists at Toronto's Luminato Festival. They seemed to be gigging all over town - twice at the RCM’s Koerner Hall, at the Janet Mallet Theatre, at the festival stage in David Pecaut Square, and even at a branch of the Toronto Pubic Library and an elementary school.

The globetrotting San Francisco-based string quartet was working hard and living up to the high artistic bar it has set itself over its 37-year career. Your intrepid musical explorer attended four of their Luminato concerts. I listened closely, spoke to some of the performers, took notes and came away mighty impressed.

[Photos of its T.O. residency:]

Kronos’ raw stats certainly are impressive. Commissioning over 700 works, it has enriched the string quartet repertoire with works by leading composers such as Tan Dun, Arvo Pärt, George Crumb, Henryk Górecki, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, and Terry Riley. It has released over 45 albums and performed all over the world.

The music industry and international arts organisations have been paying attention too. Recipient of a Grammy for Best Chamber Music Performance (2004) for Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, earlier this year Kronos was the recipient of both the prestigious Polar Music Prize (Sweden), and the Avery Fisher Prize (USA).

Perhaps Kronos’ most singular achievement has been its dedication to in-depth collaborations, both with the world's foremost composers as well as with musicians from outside the Western classical music mainstream. In its long and productive career Kronos has embraced the most orthodox of the avant guard, the classical and folk music of other cultures as well as jazz and popular music of many stripes.

A short list of the global musicians Kronos has worked with is instructive as it is mind-boggling. It includes the Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle; Ástor Piazzolla; Mexican rockers Café Tacuba; Azerbaijani mugam singer Alim Qasimov; the Romanian gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks; Afgani rubab master Homayun Sakhi; Björk; Canadian Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq; Modern Jazz Quartet, and the Chinese American pipa virtuoso Wu Man. I find it impossible to name another quartet with a more richly accomplished inter-cultural track record.

Where did the hunger for cultivating creative relationships with such a vast range of artists originate? Kronos founder David Harrington provided an insight June 11th on the Koerner Hall stage. He told us that as a teen he scoured a map of the world looking for the geographical sources of the string quartet music he was playing. To his surprise it all appeared to come from one city - Vienna - moreover it was composed long ago by men with Germanic names. Harrington began to wonder what music composed in other places and at other times sounded like.

This long-ago realisation still seems to have a resonance for Kronos, serving as a catalyst for its genre-bending creative projects.

Of course Kronos is not the only established “classical” ensemble to have performed with world music stars. All too often however such projects focus on the immediate rewards offered by the lowest common musical denominators and the composite results fall flat, the rewards offering meager musical pickings. Kronos on the other hand has managed to avoid the numerous pitfalls of fusion (which some purist wags have dubbed confusion) and to present collaborative musical results of a very high quality.

How do they do it? Each of the four Kronos concerts I attended was a veritable master class on the state of the art of this collaborative genre.  So let’s see what we can learn.

Kronos’ opening show at the Koerner Hall on June 10 set the pace with a series of works for string quartet followed by a collaborative work.  Their first set began with Aheym (2009) a motoric and monochromatic composition by rock group The National’s guitarist Bryce Dessner. Pleasing arrangements of Greek, Egyptian and Iraqi songs followed. The highlight of the set for me was the arrangement for viola solo of the alap (introductory movement) from raga Mishra Bhairavi, originally performed and recorded by the Indian sarangi master Ram Narayan. Stylistically speaking Kronos violist Hank Dutt’s elegant and elegiac solo wafted far from Narayan’s brilliant original Hindustani khyal-inflected performance. But when Dutt finally landed on the high tonic, a satisfying serenity descended on the hall.

In the second half of the concert, Alim Qasimov and his ensemble moved to the stage with Kronos. Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana are leading exponents of the Azerbaijani art music tradition, which includes sung poetry, known as mugam.

Their resulting work entitled “Rainbow” illustrated Kronos’ collaborative methodology. The quartet parts were scored by arranger Jacob Garchik referencing the harmonic and melodic language of Rimsky-Korsakov, Bartók and Glass, while Alim Qasimov arranged five works from the Azerbaijani repertoire. Kronos’ first violinist David Harrington mentioned to the audience that the concert was the result of 9 months of interactive work. It showed.

For me the outstanding aspect of this work was hearing the searing emotionally charged solo vocal flights of Alim and Fargana which brought not a few in the audience to tears.


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