Wednesday, January 10, 2007
The Kronos Quartet Plays the N Judah
There were two firsts for me on Monday evening: going inside a synagogue, and hearing San Francisco's famous "avant-garde" Kronos String Quartet in a live performance.
Both experiences were more charming than anticipated.
Though we weren't allowed into the Main Sanctuary, the courtyard and the foyer to the imposing Congregation Emanue-El temple in the fancy Presidio Heights neighborhood felt unpretentious and welcoming.
There was amateur-looking art hanging on the walls...
...and lots of photos of VIPs past and present.
Best of all, the congregation has been subsidizing a concert series for the last four years called "Music at Meyer" (click here for the website) which features great performers with a top ticket price of $20.
Opening the series this year was the Kronos Quartet, a local institution for the last 30 years with a worldwide reputation, that specializes in the music of living composers (click here for their website). Though their main focus is contemporary Western "classical" music, they have ranged far afield to Jimi Hendrix, jazz and music from the Third World.
The Martin Meyer Sanctuary turned out to be a little jewel box of a theatre with seating for 375 in what looked like pews...
...with copies of the Torah shelved behind them.
Its major drawback seemed to be that the dressing room/green room for the performers could only be reached by going through a balcony lobby (that's Kronos founder David Harrington above being greeted by a fan).
The Kronos Quartet was once infamous, and criticized, for wearing hipster clothing and using lighting effects at their concerts, instead of doing the same old quartet black-tie and bright lighting routine but I found their theatricality actually helped with the presentation of the music.
Three of the four pieces on the program had actually been written for the quartet which is an amazing statistic, and even better, the program was simply great. It started with a "Nomatophobis" by an expatriate Australian named J.G. Thirlwell that was so good we all wanted to hear it again. I was bored to death by the Witold Lutoslawski String Quartet from 1964 (which was NOT commissioned by the Kronos but has been recorded by them), but as I said to my companion, it could have just been me. The final piece of the first half was Meredith Monk's first string quartet, which was slight but quite beautiful.
The great piece on the second half of the program was by local composer John Adams. His only foray so far into the string quartet, it is a 10-movement work called "John's Book of Alleged Dances." I've been listening to a Nonesuch/Kronos recording of it for years but to hear the work live was a serious treat, with a recorded syncopation track driving on the piece mercilessly.
There is a blog by Greg Dewar called "The N Judah Chronicles" (click here) and Mr. Dewar should see if he can use the final movement called "Judah to Ocean" as an anthem. According to Adams, it is "A piece of vehicular music, this one following the street car tracks down the Great Highway and the beach, where I used to rent a two-room cottage behind the Surf Theater and listen to the N Judah reach the end of the line and turn around."