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Kronos is chamber quartet with a hard edge

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@Eventname:Kronos Quartet

@Eventdesc:Bank of Boston Celebrity Series Concert.

Saturday, Jan. 22.

Jordan Hall.

@ByName:By Mark Messier

@ByTitle:Special to The Tech.

@Dropcap:Image may not be everything to the Kronos Quartet but it certainly counts for a lot. Since the Quartet’s inception in 1973, the twice-Grammy-nominated chamber group has often seemed to market itself more as a rock band than a string quartet. Asserting their individual personalities with leather boots, flashy shirts, and in one case an elegant gown, the members of Kronos present a distinctly urban edge which carries over into their music.

@Body:The Quartet has aggressively developed a completely contemporary repertoire commissioning works from composers all over the world. The range of this repertoire is vast, including more conventional works by Shostakovich, Webern, and Barber; minimalists such as Terry Reilly, Steve Reich, and Phillip Glass; to less likely sources like Charles Mingus, Howlin’ Wolf and Jimi Hendrix. How many other quartets possess the ability and attitude necessary to go from the rapid, violent stylistic and dynamic shifts of hard-core composer John Zorn to the intensely introverted pitch explorations of Morton Feldman’s 80 minute Piano and String Quartet?

Thus one could say that the program presented at Jordan Hall on Jan. 22 as part of the Bank of Boston Celebrity Series was typical Kronos. None of the pieces on the program was more than a year old, and the five composers came from around the globe: two Americans and three representatives of former Soviet States from Uzbekistan, Russia, and Azerbaijan; three women, two men.

The program opened with Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky’s Chang Music IV. This is the fourth in a series of works for various instrumental combinations inspired by the traditional Chang percussion music of the composer’s native Uzbekistan.

Yanov-Yanovsky was the youngest composer on the program and his music was also some of the freshest. The only piece on the program to use no electronics, Chang Music IV exploited the extended techniques available to Kronos. From the long eastern-inspired glissandi of the meditative introduction to the shimmering high harmonics of the violins, the opening section contrasted the string-quartet-turned-percussion-ensemble that introduced the second theme. Rapping the bodies of their instruments with their fingers, the musicians displayed their uncanny rhythmic sense executing Yanov-Yanovsky’s intricate and witty rhythmic combinations.

Like many post-minimalists, Yanov-Yanovsky has rejected both serialism and minimalism, drawing upon ethnic sources for his harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary. High violin tremolos gradually asserted the opening texture, bringing the piece to a conclusion.

From the youngest composer, the program shifted to its most experienced. Although extremely thoughtful, Sofia Gubaidulina’s Quartet No. 4 also contained some of the least satisfying passages in the first half of the program.

As they would throughout the night, Kronos took advantage of dramatic lighting effects for this piece. From complete darkness the piece opened with a snaking quaver on tape. The Quartet’s entrance seemed an attempt to recreate this effect, as all the players rapidly bounced their bows off their strings. This moment highlighted what kept the piece from working: although the Gubaidulina explored many interesting textures, including a Bartok-esque canon, sections calling for the use of mallets to pluck the strings, etc., she failed to connect these sections, making them seem almost arbitrary.

The music was not entirely inelegant, however. The final minor sonorities of the piece, accented by a truly inspired sparse lighting of the organ in Jordan Hall, effected an impressively imperial mood before the piece faded into the darkness from which it had emerged.

The gem of the program proved to be Lois Vierk’s River Beneath the River. Written in what the composer described as “exponential form,” the piece employed a wide variety of textures and harmonic areas to gradually and continually develop a single musical idea. Rhythmically this piece was the most intense, layering complex figures one on top of the other while still clearly articulating a constant, driving quarter note pulse. As the piece drove “exponentially” to its climax, fraying more than a few bow strings, the tension of the opening phrases was uncorked as the process creating the music snowballed inevitably towards its end.

Franghiz Ali-Zadin’s Mugam Sayagi concluded the first half of the program. Before the piece, while they were tuning, the members of the Quartet left the stage one-by-one, leaving the solo cello in the spotlight. The swooping cello ostinato was joined by the viola from off-stage, gradually adding violins I and II. Simulating guitar feedback with raucous double stops, the cello called the players back to the stage. Musical fragments darted across the Quartet as if at the tip of an artist’s brush in a virtuosic display of the complete ensemble.

Drawing mostly upon material from Indian classical music, Ali-Zadin brought together many elements effectively, including a ballet-like second theme, electronic effects such as added reverberation and a taped Tamboura part, vocal effects, percussion parts, and cello lines verging on hard blues. As the piece wound down the players again left the stage, leaving the solo cello alone — a ghost of the opening strains.

The second half of the program was dedicated to Lee Hyla’s setting of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. With Ginsberg himself reading his own work on tape, the Quartet’s role was somewhat ambiguous. Hyla wanted to “have the music emerge from the poem/reading and then, as the piece evolves, have the music become independent, commenting and colliding with the poem and throwing it into a variety of textural reliefs.” However, it worked in just the opposite sense. While the Quartet stayed in step with Ginsberg’s reading, both the music and the reading were garbled as they competed for the same space.

As the Quartet’s role changed, Ginsberg’s incessant drawl became more distinct. Gradually the poem dominated the piece and the music became almost distracting as Ginsberg generated an impetuous pulse with his Whitman-inspired lists, and dramatic relief with his wit. Overall the music seemed inconsequential, and made the piece on the whole harder to understand, sending more than a few in the audience to the exits.

Those who left, however, would surely regret having done so if they knew what they’d missed. Breaking the barrier that had distanced the musicians from their audience all night, first violinist David Harrington introduced the encore as “the only thing we have that could follow Howl : Michael Dority’s Elvis Everywhere.” Incorporating a male Elvis impersonator, female voice, and honky-tonk baritone saxophone on tape, the Quartet boogie-woogied through an irreverent and eclectic shuffle that was part Vegas review and part free jazz.

Though the effect was hysterically humorous, causing the audience to laugh out loud, Kronos executed the piece with the same intensity and precision as every other piece on the evening’s program. The Quartet let the voices on tape acknowledge the audience and say good-bye. “You’ve been a great audience, thank you very much,” Elvis said before we were told. “Elvis is leaving the building. Right about now, Elvis is leaving the building. Elvis has left the building. ...”

Upcoming events in the Bank of Boston Celebrity series include the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, at Symphony Hall on Jan. 28 and Art Garfunkel at Symphony Hall on Feb. 13.