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Kronos Quartet at ND

Lillian Civantos | Monday, March 30, 2009

Many young people’s experience with classical music is limited to Disney’s “Fantasia” and the opening bar of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Kronos Quartet shows that college students can enjoy contemporary classical music just as much as they enjoy rock or rap.The Quartet consists of violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. On Friday night the group performed a number of modern classical pieces from various contemporary composers.They opened with J. G. Thirlwell’s “Nomatophobis”, or “The Fear of Naming Things.” “Nomatophobis” begins very fast paced yet ominous, like the soundtrack for a horror film where delicate strains interweave with deeper motifs. The piece gradually sinks into a slower but scarier sound fortified by a steady cello beat. Tremulous violins hover just above the beat slowly and steadily, but seem as though they are on a brink, ready to come crashing down. Instead of keeping the piece moving quickly, the Quartet take their time with each movement, heightening the tension as much as they can before moving into the next set of sounds and emotions. Gradually the instruments build into a grand, epic sound before morphing into a howling, whistling wind. They slowly faded into a soft whispering like a night wind passing through grass, as the blue lights slowly dimmed. It is incredible to realize that the Quartet achieved these magical sounds on such familiar instruments. This moment at the end of the first piece was one of the best of the entire concert.The second piece, John Zorn’s “The Dead Man”, was less dramatic but just as entertaining and unique. It began with every musician rhythmically making grating, sawing noises on their instruments before exploding into frantically fast-paced movements divided by periodic pauses where the musicians exhibited their showmanship by dramatically turning their sheets of music in sync, or rhythmically whipping their bows in the air. The sound of the swatted bows was surprisingly melodious. It illustrates the Kronos Quartet’s innovative twist on old-fashioned instruments. “The Dead Man” was a fast paced, entertaining and random piece full of surprising creaks, chatters, and slapstick swoops.The Kronos Quartet showed their versatility in the next piece by exploring Ram Narayan’s “Raga Mishra Bhairavi”, an Indian piece of haunting beauty. Using authentic Indian instruments including the sarangi, the Quartet played a haunting, yet warm, work that invokes images of the hot Indian countryside. The “Raga” features a viola solo by Dutt that conjures up mysterious, exotic images that accompany a sense of familiarity as one imagines a simple Indian village going about its daily work in the hot, foreign countryside. It is difficult to verbally describe the melodious power of this evocative number.The next piece was particularly striking. It was written specifically for the Kronos Quartet by Yugoslavian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. Called “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…”, it is a depiction of the strife that has accompanied daily village life in the Balkans. It opened with a fast pace, adding shouted vocal rhythms by Sherba and a drum beat. The quartet also stamped their feet to create a dynamic atmosphere. Crimson lighting intensified the mood. The lighting and the thundering drum brought thoughts of the ethnic war of the Balkans to the audience. The piece moved to a slower pace, and carried listeners to a small European village, where time was kept by the tolling of the church tower bells. Recorded voices cried out in a foreign language. The juxtaposition of the church bells, a Yugoslavian woman singing and the Arabic prayer song imitated the different cultures that collide in the Balkans. Thunder sounded- the piece gained momentum – and finally finished in a spectacular crescendo. Listeners felt that they have traveled far through the song’s moving ethnic influences. In the second half of the concert, the Kronos Quartet debuted a new piece that was commissioned for the University’s DeBartolo Performing Arts Center. Written by Terry Riley, it is inspired by an old-fashioned instrument: the Stroh violin. These are violins with metal horns attached to amplify the sound. They were originally created for easier recording on radio, although modern technology has rendered them unnecessary. The group’s own Stroh instruments were built especially for this piece, “Transylvanian Horn Courtship.” They deftly switched these horned instruments for their usual ones throughout the song. As the moved back and forth between the classic and amplified instruments, the group created a contrasting medley of sound. An almost conversational interaction linked the dialogue of the two sets of instruments.The group made innovative use of their instruments throughout this piece, as well as the entire show. They plucked the strings of bow instruments, drummed on the instruments’ surfaces, stamped their feet, and incorporated recorded voices into the show. The audience gave the Kronos Quartet a much-deserved standing ovation at the end. A sweet moment occurred when the composer of “Transylvanian Horn Courtship” joined the group for a final bow. Young listeners probably left the concert awestruck. The Kronos Quartet proved that classical-style music will never be old-fashioned, particularly when it is enlivened by their talented innovation. It’s time to dig out your old VHS copy of “Fantasia.” Classical is definitely back, with a new twist.