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.