There were more kinds of music at the Kronos Quartet concert, Saturday night at
UCLA’s Wadsworth Theater, than you could shake a stick at. There was, indeed, a
fair amount of stick-shaking, in one of the movements of John Zorn’s “The Dead
Man,” wherein the four players wave their bows menacingly in the air, in exact
rhythm but to no exact purpose.
Everything on the program, Alfred Schnittke’s Quartet No. 2 aside, was music
commissioned and composed for the Kronos, and the variety of that music is
proof of the enterprise of this remarkable ensemble. From John Zorn, guru of
the lower Manhattan crossover crowd, the Kronos has elicited an extended
collection of patches, some hilarious and some exasperating, some beautifully
written for the instruments and some merely squawks: a compendium of what four
string players should and shouldn’t do with and to their instruments.
Other commissioned works were somewhat more listener-friendly. Australia’s
Peter Sculthorpe, whose music the Kronos has befriended for all of its 12
years, has provided, in his “Jabiru Dreaming,” a smooth and successful mix of
native aborigine dance rhythms and Sculthorpe’s own percussive, dissonant
style. From the African-born Dumisani Maraire and Foday Musa Suso, there came
two short, congenial pieces of no great complexity, built out of simple,
ingratiating folk melodies. From Canada’s John Oswald and Hungary’s Istvan
Marta came two short works involved the live playing of the quartet with some
wild and busy tape sounds.
But the 20-minute Schnittke Quartet of 1981, the most substantial work on the
program, towered above all else in depth and beauty. The great Soviet composer
has, in this work, built a dense texture out of several mystical medieval
church melodies, seemingly spread across infinite space at the start and the
end, savage and defiant in the dense middle movement. Any doubts that the
Kronos Quartet exists only to play musical tricks and deal out a kind of
crossover mayhem, were easily dispelled by this fluent, beautifully shaped
As usual, the concert also embraced a carefully planned, imaginative visual
scheme, with subtle color changes and abstract shapes projected onto a back
screen and, of course, the quartet members’ customary propensity for kicky
costumes. One demurrer, however: while amplification may have been necessary in
the pieces with tape and the woolly sound effects in the Zorn, it betrayed the
best efforts of the quartet in the more serious Schnittke and Sculthorpe works.
The Wadsworth theater may not be our prime acoustic marvel, but it isn’t
Hollywood Bowl, either, and doesn’t need to be treated as such.

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