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Epic Reunion

Kronos Quartet and Joan Jeanrenaud

December 13, 2009

Cal Performances

The Kronos Quartet reunited with its former longtime cellist, Joan Jeanrenaud, on Sunday at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall, for a program of fascinating, if not brilliant, new music. At their Cal Performances recital, the group premiered Vladimir Martynov’s Schubert-Quintet (Unfinished), commissioned by the ensemble. It essentially consists of a few measures lifted from the gorgeous slow second movement of Franz Schubert’s Cello Quintet, Op. 163. 

The sound of two cellos is unlike anything else: warm yet dark, the woody richness embracing the ear with a profound love, especially in the hands of Jeanrenaud and Kronos' Jeffrey Zeigler. The two obviously share a deep musical connection despite an almost twofold difference in age. The presence of just one additional cello completely changes the balance of a string quartet Suddenly, it becomes a great, bottom-heavy mass, in which the violins are overpowered and must retreat to their upper registers to maintain their sovereignty. One highlight of the piece occurred when violist Hank Dutt took over the foreground with an unabashedly brash and deliberately nasal viola sound, which most violists try to mask — a sound that first violinist David Harrington described in Strings Magazine as “unfathomable tones of violaness.”

Martynov (born in Moscow in 1946) selected an apt snippet to showcase the cello quintet’s lushness. For the first few minutes, listeners could swim in its thick harmonies and revel in its beauty. In a postconcert talk, Harrington likened the experience to a moment of Schubert frozen in amber, to be examined from various angles and lightings. That’s great, if you have the patience for it. But I think that obsessing over a few out-of-context measures for anything over 10 minutes, with minimal variation, is an affront to Schubert, the musicians, and the audience. To relegate Jeanrenaud to repeating whole-notes was a huge disappointment. Why was she not featured in a more “spotlight” role?

What Schumann referred to as Schubert’s “heavenly length” here bordered on “hellish length.” When the phrase was repeated for what felt like the last time that I could take it before truly starting to suffer, the music abruptly ended, as if chopped by a meat cleaver. I suppose that’s where (Unfinished) in the title comes from.

What makes Schubert’s quintet great is its dramatic contrasts and story telling arc. Perhaps Martynov’s perpetuation of a favorite Schubert phrase as a static time-trap can be appreciated by transcendental Zen practitioners. Yet I find the Kronos Quartet most appealing when it reaches out to the audience with rhythmic excitement and true variety, as it did in the rest of the program.

Heading Home Bryce Dessner’s Aheym (Yiddish for homeward), new this year, opened the concert with intensely gripping, mechanical rhythms that yielded to singing melodies building on top of each other. The original rhythms from the opening returned in developed alterations before clustering and hurtling forth in a hair-raising climax. The effect was totally transfixing throughout.

Missy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar, also new in 2009, and also written for Kronos, was similarly exciting, with a plethora of ideas and colors to captivate listeners’ interest. The dense layers and variety of subjects were complex but still comprehensible — an ideal mix of art with entertainment. The piece featured recorded vocal samples, conveniently eliminating the need for a live singer; the use of electronic recording was also justified by harmonization and loop effects that a live singer would not have been able to produce.

After intermission, the Kronos played the West Coast premiere of Terry Riley’s Transylvanian Horn Courtship, featuring bizarre-looking and -sounding Stroh instruments. Instead of a wooden resonating box, the bridge of these contraptions, patented by Augustus Stroh in 1899, is connected to a metal diaphragm that is amplified to a bore with a flared bell — a hybrid of a violin and a trumpet. The sound is metallic and buzzy, evoking the ethnic-world flavor that the Kronos specializes in. The quartet of Stroh instruments was built especially for this piece. Now the set needs more music written for it (composers, take note!).

At 74 years of age, Riley has created music that’s as lively and beautiful as ever. Traces of his minimalist grooves are still felt, though he has come a long way since his seminal work In C. Switching between use of the Stroh and of the traditional instruments, and accompanied by their simultaneously generated electronic loops, the nine movements span the gamut of emotions, from the plaintive to the frenzied. Evocative titles range from “Heavy Breathing in Dangerous Snowfields” to “Drunken Lovesong” to “Keep Hands Up Close to the Face Before the Knockout Punch.” Dressed in unadorned yet majestic attire and a long, curly, white beard that would make Santa Claus envious, Riley himself was in attendance for the quartet that has premiered more than a dozen of his works.

Kronos Quartet concerts are always filled with surprises and variety, this one being no exception. The ensemble performs in stylish leather jackets and dark jeans (Zeigler even wore shiny metallic designer basketball sneakers), replacing the antiquated servants’ tuxedos that classical musicians typically sport. The concert was beautifully lit and masterfully mixed by lighting designer Laurence Neff and sound designer Scott Fraser.

Afterthought: As for my negative feelings about Martynov’s Quintet (I still harbor them), the fact that the work claimed the bulk of this review is telling as to the piece’s effectiveness as a work of art. Although it evoked a response of dislike, it still evoked a strong response ... and that’s what matters most.

Be'eri Moalem (www.beeri.org) is a violist, teacher, writer, and composer.