Kronos Quartet celebrates 40th year in College Park concert

Clarice Smith Center celebrates ensemble's four decades with triumphant, jovial evening. Photo: Kronos Quartet/Jay Blakesberg

COLLEGE PARK, Md., October 25, 2013 – Celebrating 40 years as one of the most groundbreaking and innovative chamber ensembles in the world, the Kronos Quartet graced College Park this past Tuesday with a varied program that included everything but the kitchen sink. The quartet has currently entered into their sixth year of residency at the Clarice Smith Center for the Performing Arts, bringing numerous concerts and academic activaties to the University of Maryland campus each year.  

Despite their frequent presence here, the seats were nevertheless filled with an energetic audience eager to hear two hours of new music. Curiosity was high, as the quartet was presenting their new cellist Sunny Yang to the College Park audience for the first time. Her debut would not disappoint. 

The program began with a Kronos Quartet “oldie” – the brief but powerful work “Spectre,” composed for them in 1990 by John Oswald. Including an active light show and tape background, the piece grew to a powerful climax, which overpowered even the quartet. A slow strobe light illuminated brief flashes of the group in exaggerated performance poses as the loudspeakers blared, creating an expressive performance art moment seemingly reminiscent of flash photography stills that served to capture dramatic moments of the performance. 

The evening continued with something completely different: a gentle arrangement of a 1920s Geeshie Wiley tune (arr. Jacob Garchik) entitled “Last Kind Words.” Turning on a stylistic dime once again, Kronos presented an arrangement of the famous Polish cantor Alter Yechiel Karniol’s “Sim Sholom,” or “For Peace,” arranged by Judith Berkson. A Kronos concert staple, it features the highly expressive and demanding cantor’s part in the cello, while the remainder of the quartet plays a subdued role with an occasional, simple chordal answer.  

Those familiar with Kronos’ work likely have witnessed previous cellist Jeffrey Ziegler’s muscular and highly expressive interpretation of this work.  New cellist Sunny Yang likewise had her moment to shine, and she seized the reigns with a deeply considered and powerfully sensitive rendition of the piece. Her performance demonstrated that she is a worthy successor in the impressive line of Kronos cellists. 

If there was one programming choice that did not fit the evening, it was “Hymnals” by Canadian composer Nicole Lizée. The composer’s aesthetic seems to be one of tonal deconstruction and a type of relativism that simply did not complement the other works chosen for the concert. Perhaps the longest work of the evening, this loud piece also seemed to have the affect of de-tuning one’s ears to the point where the following Phillip Glass piece sounded somehow “off.” Underscoring this observation, concertgoers commented on how they had to settle in or re-tune themselves for the comparatively traditional Phillip Glass work that followed.

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The east coast premiere of Phillip Glass’s Sixth String Quartet did not disappoint, even if it seemed subdued by the work that directly preceded it.  If some of Glass’s loveliest musical moments have come at the apex of his long development as a composer, this work seemed a meditation on such moments, a collection of “Glassian” ideas set in counterpoint to each other. A real sentimentality emerges from the tall and glowering composer, most clearly evident during the quartet’s touching second movement.  

After a brief but wine-drenched intermission, the Quartet returned with “On the Wings of Pegasus,” by the youngest composer ever to write for Kronos, Yuri Boguinia. Violinist David Harrington related the charming story of the almost dismissive opposition that Boguinia’s music received from one of his instructors, prompting Harrington to ask Boguinia for the piece. Listening to this affecting, soaring, and highly original work during Kronos’ program made it abundantly clear that Harrington’s judgment of Boguinia’s compositional voice was the more accurate than that of the composer’s instructor. 

The evening concluded with “And the movement of the Tongue” by the eclectic composer Pamela Z. It featured a backing track of people speaking similar English phrases with strong regional and international accents, while the quartet writing found its musical gestures in the rhythms and pitch of the speech. Far from being a Steve Reich knock-off, this gentle, endearing, and often humorous work quickly won over the crowd. Pamela Z achieves a rare fusion of humor and high art in this touching work, and it may have been the highlight of the evening.

The University of Maryland’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center is most fortunate to have such a special relationship with the Kronos Quartet.  Tuesday night’s capacity audience showed how much interest a concert of new music can generate, and there is no reason to believe that future performances will not be similarly attended.

Rating: *** (3 out of 4 stars.)

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Mark Nowakowski


Dr. Mark Nowakowski is a composer whose works have been performed across the United States and Europe. He holds five degrees in various music concentrations, while currently
also serving as the Music Curator and Interim Director for the Foundation for Sacred Arts.

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