Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Kronos Quartet Plays with Local Ingredients

San Francisco's internationally renowned Kronos Quartet (l-r above, David Harrington and John Sherba on violins, Jeffrey Zeigler on cello, and Hank Dutt on viola) have been performing together for four decades. The group has commissioned close to 750 new works by composers from every musical tradition in the world, many of which they have recorded on a series of over 40 recordings.

Before heading to Australia this week and the Netherlands after that, with a palate cleanser concert in Long Beach, California, the quartet gave a pair of performances at Yerba Buena Center's Lam Theater. The big news was that the globetrotting quartet was ending a three-year "partnership" with Yerba Buena Center by commissioning new works from San Francisco composers. The even better news is that the local composers did San Francisco proud, writing good music that will probably have a long life. (From left to right above, Stephen Prutsman, Nathaniel Stookey, Pamela Z, and Dan Becker being interviewed by pianist, radio host and Berkeley Museum curator Sarah Cahill.)

The concert started with Carrying the Past, a short piece by Dan Becker above, who is chair of the Composition Department at the SF Conservatory of Music. The piece was a collision between 78RPM recordings of his grandfather Eddie Sandson playing lead trumpet in big bands and Kronos playing a slightly dissonant, minimalist piece that occasionally mirrored the jazz recordings but more often was in its own universe. I've enjoyed all of Becker's music that I have heard over the years, including this piece, which lasted the perfect amount of time.

Nathaniel Stookey above was a San Francisco wunderkind who was born after the Kronos formed. His career seems to be exploding, with commissions from orchestras and arts groups around the world. Stookey's String Quartet No. 3, The Mezzanine, was receiving its world premiere from the commissioning Kronos and it's an ambitious, serious work channeling Nicholson Baker's odd, granular 1988 novel The Mezzanine about an escalator ride during an office lunch break with many footnotes (click here). The music was both silky and obsessive, and the performance was masterful.

After intermission, there were four short "translations" by pianist and arranger Stephen Prutsman above of a Bollywood song, a Turkish instrumental, a Lebanese hymn and an Ethiopian saxophone solo. Kronos has long been a pioneer in introducing World Music to the West and the string quartet tradition, and Prutsman has been their trusted, stalwart arranger for over 40 of these pieces.

The concert closed with And The Movement of The Tongue by Pamela Z above. Sort of a Laurie Anderson of the West Coast since the 1980s, Pamela Z has played with live, looped sound on computers for decades, and this world premiere is one of her best pieces. She uses samples of accented English by everyone from Berkeley based, Italian-accented composer Luciano Chessa to Southern twangs to Call Center computer voices. The writing for the string quartet was sometimes a simple accompaniment to the rhythms of the speech and other times worked in counterpoint. It was a witty, charming, and thoughtful work which reflects the wonder you feel sometimes in the Bay Area when listening to a Tower of Babble of accented English. Think Locally, Talk Globally.

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