February 22, 2013
Kronos "Listen Local" Does It Right
For once, a concert organization put on a program with a theme that not only made sense (a rarity in itself, considering the vacuity of most marketing-speak program titles) but also was even significant. For its last concert of a three-year residency in association with the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Kronos Quartet on Friday drew attention to three local composers other than the usual suspects, John Adams and Mason Bates. Not only that, they went so far as to honor what some might consider merely a hanger-on lurking in the vestibules of Palace Composerdom — an arranger, no less!
The Bay Area contains as many composers as ground squirrels on Alameda Island, but you have to be a dedicated off-venue concertgoer to become acquainted with all their music. The Kronos chose three excellent ones: Dan Becker, chairman of the Composition Department at the San Francisco Conservatory; Nathaniel Stookey, best known for his work introducing children to the orchestra, called The Composer Is Dead; and Pamela Z, a composer and performance artist known for her exploitations of various electronic devices.
The Kronos Quartet drew attention to three local composers other than the usual suspects.
The concert began with Becker’s Carrying the Past, a piece he describes as “the latest exploration of the relationship between my own musical sensibilities and the witty and sweetly guileless music that I rediscovered through my grandfather’s recordings.” That ancestor, bandster Eddie Sandson, played lead trumpet in the 1920s. Some of his 78 recordings were worked into the piece as electronic background, the scrappy sound of which worked well with first violinist and Kronos Artistic Director David Harrington’s approach to the music.
Yet the piece also contained many other old sound effects, deftly tucked in. Some were so interesting and ambiguous that the live music being performed seemed less relevant, other than to keep up the beat — I seemed to hear horses’ hooves, cats’ yowling, gunshots, country dances, and cartoonlike Dopplerisms of trains whooshing by.
The second piece on the program was my favorite, Stookey’s String Quartet No. 3 (“The Mezzanine”). Unfortunately, it was least well-served by the program notes, which seemed to follow a policy of allocating two-thirds of the space to biographical material vs. one third to the music. The composer told me afterward that the work had five movements, which corresponded to what in the notes was described thusly, without further explanation, “… the music really is about escalators, drinking straws, shoelaces, vending machines, and cigarette butts.”
The first movement was the most distinctive, with a brilliantly interlocking series of upward, whole-tone scales passed around the instruments, most effectively rendered by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler. Lots of fun ensues in the remaining movements, even if I couldn’t relate the music to the indicated objects. Highlights included a kind of cowboy tango, Bartókian accents, additive gestures, a hillbilly hoedown, and a superb conclusion that brings back the lovely whole-tone escalators.
Fine Long-Time Arrangement
The first set after intermission honored an arranger, Stephen Prutsman, who is also a virtuoso pianist and composer. David Harrington said of him to the audience, “The world needs good translators!” Over the years, Prutsman has arranged for the Kronos more than 40 pieces of international origin. Five of these were performed Friday — one each from India, Turkey, Lebanon, Ethiopia, and Greece — as the first encore. The success and sensitivity of his efforts, combined with the Kronos’ interpretive style, is a major reason why the quartet is so well-known today.
After the Prutsman came Z’s piece, And the Movement of the Tongue (2012). This was a 25-minute suite of about a dozen takes on the ways in which words and phrases are articulated, recorded in interviews of many individuals by the composer and accompanied by the Quartet. Many of them got the audience laughing, deservedly in most cases, but bigotedly in the case of southern accents, an area of diversity sensitivity that northern liberals should pay more attention to. My favorite was the word “pie,” the pun on which was joined musically by playing the third, root, fourth, root, fifth, ninth, etc. of the scale. Others included “born in,” “come home,” “rain/rain in Spain,” “I don’t know,” “handcuffs,” and, most humorously, a Stephen Hawking–like voice speaking to tech support. Not all the numbers were of equal quality: I’d cut two or three of them, based on audience response.
In a surprise final encore, considering the tenor of the rest of the concert, the Kronos played Aleksandra Vrebalov’s arrangement of Wagner’s prelude to his opera Tristan and Isolde. While the work was sensitively interpreted, a few intonation problems and electronic enhancement of the instruments (which sounded like it was still on) did not well serve this ultrafamiliar, nonlocal classic.
Jeff Dunn is a freelance critic with a B.A. in music and a Ph.D. in geologic education. A composer of piano and vocal music, he is a member of the National Association of Composers, USA, a former president of Composers, Inc., and has served on the Board of New Music Bay Area. A photomontage enthusiast, he illustrates his own reviews.
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