Smile Politely

Kronos Quartet rewards small but enthusiastic crowd

Kronos Quartet are a unique presence in contemporary classical music. Having worked with everyone from Terry Riley to Nine Inch Nails, they clearly are not afraid to flout the (sometimes) stifling conventions that come with being a chamber ensemble. That sense of adventure was on display in eye-opening fashion this past Wednesday at Krannert’s Foellinger Great Hall.

Against a muted backdrop (it’s amazing what you can do with just two lights), the group opened with the tightly-coiled “Ahyem” (written by The National’s Bryce Dessner) before moving into my two favorite pieces of the night — Missy Mazzoli’s “Harp and Altar” and Laurie Anderson’s “Flow.” Both pieces rely on slow builds (in the case of the former, assisted by an impossibly resonant vocal sample), and succeed by utilizing harmony and space, in contrast to the angular pieces which made up the rest of the evening’s program. The ending of “Harp and Altar,” in which the room literally seemed to be breathing, was one of the many high points of the night.

The program’s centerpiece was a performance of Steve Reich’s latest work, WTC 9/11 — one of the most un-Reich pieces that Steve has written. Co-commisioned by UIUC, there are no pulses or phase shifts to be had. Instead, Reich builds his tension and release with open melodic phrases and sporadic tape interjections, including a live string loop and sampled dialogue from EMS responders. I have to point the hall’s stunning acoustic clarity and natural reverb, as well as commend Kronos’ soundman — nothing was overpowered, the tape loops meshed flawlessly, making for the best sounding performance I’ve ever witnessed.

After the second set closed with a marathon version of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s … hold me neighbor, in this storm…, the small but enthusiastic crowd was rewarded with two encores: a Greek folk tune which I did not catch the name of, and a dissonant version of Bob Dylan’s stone-cold classic “Don’t Think Twice” that somehow managed to hang together.

Ultimately, I can’t think of a single complaint to levy against this performance. Sure, the crowd was light, but Kronos were feeling generous, and the music, sound, and lighting were spot-on.

Kronos Quartet playing Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11

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