Kronos Festival 2017

Harry S. Pariser By

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Kronos Quartet
Kronos Festival 2017
San Francisco, CA
February 4-6, 2017

"I'd started playing string quartets when I was 12, and one day when I was 14, I was gazing at a map of the world and suddenly realized that all the quartet music I'd ever heard—Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert—came from a single city: Vienna. A simple question came to me: 'What did music from other cities and countries sound like?' A door of curiosity opened to the world's music, and over the years, this door has opened wider and wider."—David Harrington, interviewed in American Impresario (2011).

A pop legend narrates a beat poem as his score is played by a string quartet. A Vietnamese musician plays exotic instruments. A string quartet mimics the sound of Inuit throat singing. Thirty-nine female vocalists in black gowns beat their chests. These are some of the scenes which took place on stage during one of the world's most unique festivals. A three-day musical bacchanal put on by Kronos Quartet, one of the planet's most unusual musical ensembles and organizations, Kronos Festival 2017 took place from February 2nd to 4th, 2017 at SFJAZZ in San Francisco, California. It included both Saturday and Sunday morning and afternoon performances by various ensembles, as well as three evenings featuring collaborations with Kronos.

Friday evening, the quartet's four members took the stage. Behind them stood their special guests: Nineteen students from the San Francisco Ruth Asawa School for the Arts who had been coached by jazz trumpeter and teacher Henry Hung. A majority of the students performed on clarinet, but a tuba provided needed oomph. "Grandma's House," a world premiere from guest Iranian composer Sahba Aminikia, employed melodies from a children's program aired during his childhood. Three movements from composer Trey Spruance's "Séraphîta"—precisely fingered and meditative and mournful at times—followed. Next was a spirited, propulsive arrangement by Jacob Garchik of Peter Townshend's "Baba O'Riley." According to Kronos founder David Harrington, the legendary rock song was inspired by both Townshend's guru Meher Baba and longtime Kronos collaborator, the 81-year-old Terry Riley. (Having worked with Kronos since the late 1970s, the minimalist composer Riley has composed more than 25 commissions for the quartet.)

A sprightly rendition of Mark Applebaum's "Darmstadt Kindergarten" engaged the audience. Cellist Sunny Yang, the quartet's newest member, schooled audience members in the composer's elaborate hand movements which they were expected to replicate at signaled intervals. As the composition came to a climax, each musician ceased playing, stood in turn and went through the requisite hand movements, until silence reigned.

Originally commissioned for a family concert, this lighthearted piece was followed by three spirited numbers by legendary Iranian vocalist Mahsa Vahdat. Vahdat, who is forbidden from crooning publicly in her native land, intoned with plaintive, poignant passion.

"See How my whole existence is in ruin
An amber set fire to my being
I am lifted to heights
I am trapped"

Following an intermission, Kronos played Indian violinist Kala Ramnath's composition"Amrit" ("Nectar"). Melodic and lyrical, it is one of the works commissioned for the quartet's exciting project "Fifty for the Future." This project places its commissions on the internet for anyone to download free of charge. Interest has proved considerable thus far: According to Harrington, the ten pieces available have been downloaded over 800 times by ensembles in 35 countries just since this past November. Ryan Brown's fast paced "Pinched"—another composition penned for Kronos and featuring hand plucking—came next.

It was then time for the evening's finale: Iranian composter Sahba Aminikia's "Music of the Spheres." This world premiere, a collaboration with ANIM, the Afghanistan National Institute of Music, featured the San Francisco Girls Chorus conducted by Valérie Sainte-Agathe and was. Each of the 39 black-gown clad young women simultaneously clapped their chests to percussive effect, as part of the performance. The standing ovation was followed by an encore.

The second night began with a stirring, energetic and yet stately rendition of Aleksandra Vrebalov's "My Desert, My Rose," as performed by the Dragon String Quartet of the Ruth Asawa School for the Arts. Vrebalov, a Serbian who moved to the United States in 1995, draws and sketches her musical concepts—in order to illustrate and chart texture, color and musician movements—before putting notes to paper. Sahba Aminikia's arrangement of Persian classical singer Mohammad Reza Shajarian and kamancheh-master Kayhan Kalhor 's "Rain" followed. Next, long-time collaborator Terry Riley was invited to the stage. He gave an exceptionally eclectic introduction to his "The Serpent Risdarome," employing only nonsense words. ("Not yet obvicacious or boliferant," it began.)

Nubian musician Hamza El Din's "Escalay" ("Waterwheel") followed, with the quartet attempting to mime the sound of the El Din's oud with considerable success. Korean composer Soo Yeon Lyuh's "Yessori" ("Sound from the Past") was next. Lyuh, donning an extraordinary gown, joined Kronos onstage with her haegeum, a screechy two-string fiddle, an instrument which has been popular on the peninsula for at least a millennium.

Following intermission, it was time to present a collaboration between two icons of the arts. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, founder and owner of City Lights Bookstore and publisher of City Lights Books, is best known as a poet for his poem "A Coney Island of the Mind." Van Dyke Parks, a Los Angeles musical icon who has worked with the Beach Boys, Randy Newman, Ry Cooder and other musicians, was attracted to the idea of composing to the lyrics of this poem because "Ferlinghetti is my ticket to ride." And ride he did—reciting with enthusiasm, while Kronos played his score, and even clenching his fists at times. Parks pressed his hands together at the end.

"and I am waiting for the American eagle
to really spread its legs
and straighten up
and fly right"

Then, Dan Becker's intriguing "Carrying the Past" sampled performances on 78s by trumpeter Eddie Sandson, his grandfather, some of them quite distorted.
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