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Kronos Quartet presents innovative and eclectic program


Works by Tamusuza, Volans,

Riley, Ives, and others.

Berklee Performance Center,

Sunday, November 12.


AT THE MOST BIZARRE POINT OF Sunday night's show, the members of the Kronos Quartet alternated between dissonant swipes at their instruments and random attacks on assorted woodblocks, cymbals, and gongs. The piece, Carlos Farinas' Tatomaite, was the fourth selection of the quartet's eclectic program, and by far its most hit-and-miss one. Tatomaite is written in Farinas' own "graphic-spacial notation," ostensibly (as the program notes blithely state) to allow "considerable freedom in performance," but in reality resulting in an atonal muddle. The improvised percussion interludes were acceptable, but the persistent shrieking of the strings was wholly unpleasant. At least I was able to blame the sheer unmusicality of the piece on the composer and not the quartet, who consistently showed an unparalleled level of musicianship.

The bulk of the program, however, was considerably more listenable. Escalay ("The Waterwheel"), the third selection of the evening, was Sudanese composer Hamza El Din's attempt to show how the eternal rhythm of the waterwheel is a metaphor for the eternity of life, and its subtle Middle-Eastern cadences were soothing. Mu Kkubo Ery' Omusalaaba, by Justinian Tamusuza, again featured Kronos percussion, as the members of the quartet tapped and knocked at their instruments to simulate African drums.

As the pre-eminent performers of avant-garde classical music, Kronos has always been able to commission works from such renowned modern composers as Kevin Volans and Terry Riley. Two pieces from these composers appeared on the program -- Volans' White Man Sleeps, Dance 4 and Riley's The Gift -- and Kronos proved themselves worthy of their reputation. Their execution of the Volans piece was perfect, with Hank Dutt's emotional viola solo moving tenderly over a pizzicato background marking a highlight of the performance. The Terry Riley piece, which is part of the much longer Salome Dances for Peace, seemed remarkably fleshed out for the work of a minimalist (Riley is usually grouped with fellow minimalists Philip Glass and Steve Reich), and Kronos took full advantage of that fact. The Gift has a square, repetitive structure, but Kronos offered an interpretation that was at once sensitive and true to the composer's rigid framework.

The final selection of the program was Charles Ives' Quartet No. 2. A surprisingly modern piece for its time (it was written in 1913), the Ives sounded as up-to-date as the Riley or the Volans even though it was laced with snatches of "Dixie" and American folksongs not often heard today. Once again, Kronos' rendition was impeccable, particularly during the violent second movement.

As always, the quartet offered an odd assortment of encores. The first, their version of Howlin' Wolf's "Spoonful" was frankly, strange, with Kronos adapting the song's mournful rhythm and blues to their strings. The second encore, Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady," was positively transcendental, as Kronos successfully mimicked feedback and screeching guitar lines, bringing out the song's intense lust almost as well as the original.