Kronos Quartet, with Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant
From its earliest recordings, which included transcriptions of jazz, Kronos Quartet has cast their net wide. The group’s repertoire encompasses music from the world over and from numerous composers in a variety of styles. To remind myself of Kronos’ earlier days, I put on their “Landmark Sessions” recordings of Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans. And what a reminder it was, pointing up the fluid nature of the quartet’s ability to shift tone and rhythmic feel to accommodate nearly whatever they approach.
On Folk Songs, their latest CD for Nonesuch, Kronos are joined by an all-star cast of vocalists – Sam Amidon, Olivia Chaney, Rhiannon Giddens, and Natalie Merchant – in a collection of American folksongs from various traditions. The arrangements – skilfully wrought by Nico Muhly, Donnacha Dennehy, Jacob Garchik, and Gabriel Witcher – deploy the skills sets of the guests, including instrumental contributions, Amidon’s guitar and Chaney’s harmonium and percussion, to good effect. The aforementioned fluidity of the quartet affects the way that they serve as collaborators in the various selections. Amidon’s neo-folk adoption of Appalachia is well-served by fiddle tune melodies and straight tone chords. Merchant’s soulful voice is matched by chocolatey timbres and poignant phrasing. Frequent Kronos collaborator Dennehy’s contribution, an arrangement of the traditional Irish song “Ramblin’ Boy,” is an ideal vehicle for the supple singing and exuberant playing of Chaney. An arrangement by Garchik of Delta Blues vocalist Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words” is a suave and winning instrumental interlude. Giddens is a marvel, her beautiful singing winsomely swinging in two originals inspired by traditional blues: “Factory Girl” and “Lullaby.” While Kronos is currently busy with a multi-year commissioning project (titled “Fifty for the Future”), such thoughtful music-making in an entirely different vein is most welcome.
Fifty for the Future Commissioning Project — Kronos used Saturday February 11th’s concert to showcase some of the early entries in their “Fifty for the Future” project. Not only is Kronos recording all of the pieces for young quartets to hear; their website also includes free to download PDFs of scores and parts. Thus, they are creating a new repertory for quartets eager to learn about contemporary music.
Garth Knox — Some of the pieces, such as renowned violist Garth Knox’s “Dimensions” from Satellites, take on a didactic function. Knox features all manner of bowing techniques, including the surprisingly potent hissing sound of “air bowing.” It is a piece that is a catalog of special effects, but they are organically incorporated and the music is a brisk tour: it doesn’t overstay its welcome and stretch one’s appreciation of its charms.
Malian percussionist Fode Lassana Diabate’s Sundata’s Time: The master balafonist joined Kronos onstage for the first completed “Fifty For the Future” composition: Sundata’s Time. Each movement spotlighted a different instrument, along with a few extra cadenzas for balafon thrown in. These were most welcome. Diabate plays with an extraordinary grace and fluidity that not only was stirring in its own right, but brought out a different character entirely in Kronos’s playing. It was a most simpatico collaboration.
Kala Ramnath’s Amrit contains major scale ragas that craft a poignantly stirring work combining Eastern and Western gestures in a bold attempt to bring the two hemispheres’s musical traditions together.
Rhiannon Giddens’s At the Purchaser’s Option brought blues and roots music to the fore, genres that Kronos has played eloquently since their inception. Perhaps the most attractive piece on the program in terms of musical surface, its message went deeper, serving as a sober reminder of slave trade in 19th Century America. Giddens has a new Nonesuch CD out this coming Friday, titled Freedom Highway.
If Giddens’s piece was the most attractive on a surface level, Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet remained the weightiest in ambition and most thoroughly constructed of the programmed works. Written for Kronos, it features two virtual quartets on tape that accompany the live musicians (Kay and I are lobbying for more live performances of all three quartets, as that would really be something!). Overlapping ostinatos and stabbing melodic gestures provide a serious demeanor that resembles another piece played by Kronos with tape (of human voices): Different Trains. The rhythmic contours and syncopations provide ample amounts of challenges, but Kronos played seamlessly with the avatar-filled tape part. While “Fifty for the Future” is an important mission for Kronos, it is also heartening to hear some of their older repertoire being revived. The encore for the concert: an arrangement of “Strange Fruit,” the jazz protest song made famous by Billie Holiday.