Adelaide Festival. Festival Theatre. 13 Mar 2023
The Kronos Quartet is not your usual string quartet. Yes, they comprise the customary instruments – two violins, a viola, and a cello – but their repertoire is markedly different to most other string quartets. It could be said this famous ensemble inhabit and rejoice in a different sound world, and this concert was certainly that. It comprised an iconic composition from George Crumb (Black Angels), a world première (BEAK, by Australian composers Jon Rose and Hollis Taylor), an Australian première (ilektrikés rímes by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov), a composition by Missy Mazzoli (Enthusiasm Strategies) and one by Krzysztof Penderecki (Quartetto per archi), and a bracket of heartfelt and provocative songs performed in Farsi and Kurdish by Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat.
Kronos concerts are as much to be seen as they are to be heard. Dressed in relaxed dark hued clothing, David Harrington, violin, John Sherba, violin, Hank Dutt, viola, and Paul Wiancko, cello, walk on to the dimly lit Festival Theatre stage where their instruments are suspended on overhead lanyards and their music stands and other paraphernalia is spread widely across the stage. No standard configuration here. They are greeted enthusiastically by the very large and diverse audience, who are clearly Kronos enthusiasts.
They remove their instruments from the lanyards and start with Black Angels. Its mood is ominous and dark, and it speaks about the physical and emotional horrors of war. The strings for a time are replaced by crystal glasses over which their bows are run to create almost otherworldly sounds. Gongs are sounded, and the lighting changes expressively to announce different sonic approaches. It is theatrical.
Harrington later speaks to the audience and states this is only the second time in 49.8 years that Kronos have started a concert with Black Angels. As visceral and unsettling as the piece is, the devotees in the audience deeply appreciate this. He also comments that Vrebalov’s ilektrikés rimes (which translates as Electric Rhymes) is a response to Black Angels: as Black Angels is to Vietnam, Electric Rhymes is to former war-torn Yugoslavia.
Seemingly, the die is cast: this program is not a happy one. It is deeply contemplative, and it speaks almost harshly about the human condition. Vahdat’s songs are political, and speak about the suppression of people in her beloved homeland Iran, particularly women.
But there is some respite, and BEAK is a musical conversation with the birdsong of a warbling pied butcherbird. A large screen behind the quartet projects images of a lone bird in the depths of night under moonlight warbling out to the world. It is humorous. It is refreshing.
Mazzoli’s Enthusiasm Strategies was composed for the Kronos Quartet as part of their Fifty for the Future initiative. Mazzoli has said that music is a “…strategy for mustering enthusiasm and joy” and Enthusiasm Strategies does just that: it enlivens and excites.
Kronos’s performance of Penderecki’s Quartetto per archi is as interesting visually as it is aurally. They stand with their backs to the audience and read the score on a large screen as it scrolls past. The notation almost looks like hieroglyphics at some points, and we as audience enjoy following the score perversely checking whether it all makes sense!
Mahsa Vahdat is a beautiful singer. She has a purity of tone that is perfectly supported by the playing from the ensemble. Indeed, the arrangements by Iranian American contemporary composer Sahba Aminikia are superbly crafted for a string quartet and soprano. The songs retain a full sense of their ethnic roots but the music crosses seamlessly into the western tradition.
Yes, the songs were political, as was the music of Crumb and Vrebalov, but shouldn’t festivals provoke?
Where: Festival Theatre