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Kronos Quartet To Play Bing Concert Hall

In Music
Kronos Quartet plays the Bing Concert Hall at Stanford on Oct. 5. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

Kronos Quartet plays the Bing Concert Hall at Stanford on Oct. 5. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

Leave it to Kronos Quartet to deliver a program exploring ethnic wars, genocide, bombings, Afro-Cuban percussion, liturgical Jewish prayers, Tibetan mysticism and the Brooklyn Bridge. As they’ve done for 40 years now, Kronos continues to interpret the future of the string quartet, and the program they have planned for this Sunday, at Stanford’s state-of-the-art Bing Concert Hall, is no different.

The concert will feature mostly new works—all of them by female composers, including Missy Mazzoli, Santa Ratniece and Aleksandra Vrebalov.

Selecting a program of works written entirely by women was no accident, according to Kronos violinist David Harrington. Reached by phone from Krakow, where Kronos were gigging with Laurie Anderson, Harrington said the Bing program represents a unique moment for the group, as it reflects a refreshing wave of new outlooks that women composers bring to the table, not just for string quartet music, but for concert and chamber music in general.

“What I was hoping to do with this concert is to provide our audience with a perspective on things from a point of view that you don’t normally get in the world of string quartet concerts,” Harrington says. “What we’ve noticed over many years now is that there’s a dramatic new-found strength in the world of women composers. From all over the world. I think it’s invigorating the world of music in a beautiful way. So I look at this program at Bing Concert Hall as almost the beginning of a new era in our music.”

Inspired by Balkan folk and religious music, Aleksandra Vrebalov’s piece, “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…,” undulates with a dark, trancelike energy. Eastern European tunings and harmonies circle back and forth with their Western counterparts, and the listener hears elements of Islamic prayer, escapist tavern songs, church bells and even recordings of Vrebalov’s own grandmother weaving stories of ethnic intolerance.

According to Harrington, Vrebalov is the only composer who has written for Kronos who “has actually experienced what it’s like to have her country under attack. Not in the sense of September 11, 2001, but in the sense of trying to write a piece of music during the NATO bombing of Belgrade. So there’s this real kind of realization of the precariousness of the world that we all share, that I think informs her music.”

Mary Kouyoumdjian, a first-generation Armenian-American, was the fifth recipient of the Kronos: Under 30 Project, a series of commissions and residencies for composers under 30 years of age. She comes from a family directly affected by the Lebanese Civil War and Armenian genocide, and her commissioned piece, Bombs of Beirut, reflects the horrors of those conflicts through recorded stories and complex sonic palettes. Prerecorded backing tracks include interviews with friends and family, all sharing wartime experiences. We also hear audio documentation of bombings and attacks on civilians tape-recorded from an apartment balcony between 1976–1978.

“This piece is very personal,” Harrington said. “You sense the knowledge of the stories that have come down through her family. You sense the personal aspect.”

The program also features a world premiere of Latvian composer Santa Ratniece’s piece, silsila, which translates to ‘chain’ in Arabic. Through seven undivided parts, the piece follows the Brahmaputra river downstream from Tibet, through India and Bangladesh to the Bay of Bengal. The seven sections are titled in Tibetan.

Other pieces on the program include Missy Mazzoli’s Harp and Altar, inspired by poet Hart Crane’s ode to the Brooklyn Bridge. The Jewish liturgical poem, Ov Horachamim also makes an appearance, as does the Afro-Cuban Tabu by Margarita Lecuona, as well as Jacob Garchik’s commissioned arrangement of Geeshie Wiley’s Last Kind Words, an old blues number from 1930. In the latter instance, some of the lyrics read: “The last kind words I heard my daddy say: ‘If I die in the German war, please don’t bury my soul. Ah, child, just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole.’”

Harrington reiterates that such a unique program of women composers inspires Kronos to keep going, even after 40 years. String quartet music will never leave us.

“We’re just getting started,” Harrington declares. “The fact that we’re able to play a program like this gives me a lot of energy for the future and a lot of questions to be answered for the future. It feels like it’s beginning a new chapter: In the fall of 2014, a program of such astonishing music by incredibly creative composers, and it so happens they’re all women. It’s sad to us that this has not happened–in this art form that Haydn started in 1750–it has not happened before. So this is great.”

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