Kronos, the Musical Saw, and the Kitchen Sink

Peter Feher on May 1, 2018
Kronos Quartet at the Kronos Festival | Credit: Evan Neff

The Kronos Quartet knows how to put on a good show. A theatrical sensibility pervaded Miner Auditorium on Saturday evening, as the ensemble concluded their fourth-ever “hometown” festival with a 150-minute cross-cultural, genre-busting, new-music extravaganza of a concert.

Bathed in stage lights of every color, the group brought out one guest act after another — festival artist-in-residence David Coulter, traditional Vietnamese instrumentalist Vân-Ánh Võ, Valérie Sainte-Agathe and the San Francisco Girls Chorus — in a program structured more like a variety show than your run-of-the-mill string quartet concert. Freshly commissioned works fleshed out the already substantial lineup.

The most obviously theatrical music of the night was Coulter’s A Thousand Splendid Suns Suite, arranged by Sahba Aminikia for string quartet and Coulter’s instrument of choice, the musical saw. More on that in a bit. Author Khaled Hosseini (of The Kite Runner fame) was on-hand to introduce the piece, which began life as the underscore to a stage adaption of one of his novels. In the context of a concert performance, Coulter’s composition maintained its identity as incidental music. The rhythms and melodies across the quintet never overwhelmed, and the pacing of the entire work certainly benefited from its suite-like format, and that it was extracted by a fresh set of eyes, from an excess of material.

David Coulter (r) playing saw with Kronos Quartet | Credit: Evan Neff

As for the saw. “Instruments not normally seen in a concert hall” was a running theme for the evening, though the saw has a musical precedent in parts of Appalachia. I found the justification Hosseini offered quite heavy-handed — the saw represents the violence inflicted upon his characters — but delighted in the apparent ease with which Coulter played such a peculiar instrument.

Found objects were deployed to slightly more humorous ends in Yevgeniy Sharlat’s pencil sketch, a commission for Kronos’ Fifty for the Future project. In defiance of the project’s stated mission of exposing young musicians to contemporary music independent of obsolete technology, Sharlat elected to make percussive use of the No. 2 wooden pencil, an obsolete technology if there ever was one. Members of the quartet alternated between pencils and bows, unpitched rhythms and snatches of melody, including a quote from the Sibelius Violin Concerto. My one regret was that there was no unifying moment when all four players used their pencils simultaneously. Now that would have been something.

Vân-Ánh Võ with Kronos Quartet | Credit: Evan Neff

Vân-Ánh Võ provided the most traditional fare of the evening, albeit on an untraditional pair of instruments. A triptych of melancholy songs by Purcell, Dowland, and Mahler featured her on đàn bầu and đàn tranh, alternately. The former stood in for vocal lines and sounded like a theremin, and the latter was used to the effect of a guitar or lute. There were interpretative discrepancies between Võ and Kronos with respect to vibrato — particularly on the Dowland — but the two were reconciled in time for the Mahler and milked “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen” (“I am lost to the world” from Rückert-Lieder) for all its worth.

The festival ended with an all-out staging of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Missa Supratext, a secular and textless Mass performed by the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Under the firm musical direction of Valérie Sainte-Agathe, the girls produced an array of sounds without words: murmurs, yelps, mews, claps, and stomps. The drama heightened with a bevy of jangly percussion instruments, revealed as some of the chorus members left the stage to fill the aisles. David Coulter and his musical saw even joined in. This may have been a Mass, but it played like theater.

Kronos Quartet with Valérie Sainte-Agathe and the San Francisco Girls Chorus | Credit: Evan Neff

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