by Mike Telin

ForKronos-Quartet nearly forty years, the Kronos Quartet — David Harrington and John Sherba violins, Hank Dutt, viola and Jeffrey Zeigler, cello — have been a potent force in the advancement of contemporary classical music. On Friday, January 18 beginning at 7:30 this celebrated quartet returns to Cleveland for a concert on the VIVA! & Gala series in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium.

In the words of David Harrington, “I’ve always wanted the string quartet to be vital, and energetic, and alive, and cool, and not afraid to kick ass and be absolutely beautiful and ugly if it has to be. But it has to be expressive of life. To tell the story with grace and humor and depth. And to tell the whole story, if possible.” Now, with over 750 works written for Kronos Quartet by an impressive list of composers, how does a quartet with so many repertoire possibilities go about programming a concert? 

We reached David Harrington by telephone and asked him how they decided on the pieces for Friday’s concert?

David Harrington: Sometimes I feel like we have a tool box and there are lots of different tools in that box. Some are ready to be used and some we haven’t used for a long time and need to be sharpened. And at any point there are new tools being added to the box. And that’s how we put this program together.

But you begin by thinking how to start. One of the pieces that I think gets things going in a supercharged way is Bryce Dessner’s, Aheym, which in English means Homeward. It starts authoritatively and ends breathlessly.

Then, how do you create contrast? Why not play one of the most beautiful meditative pieces we have, Ram Narayan’s Raga Mishra Bhairavi. It has a great viola part.

Then, our friend Dan Becker has just written a new piece called Carrying the Past. By total coincidence it’s a remembrance of his grandfather’s band that he played trumpet in during the 1920’s in Cleveland. There are recordings that the family discovered a few years ago and they are a part of this piece. We found this out after we decided to do the world premiere in Cleveland. Dan is going to be there, so that will be great.

So how do you create contrast with that? Well, Laurie Anderson’s Flow is incredibly beautiful and sets an emotional stage for Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, which really takes the listener and Kronos through an emotional journey.

And what can you do after that? Well the only thing you can do is to play some dance music. One of the greatest dance musicians I’ve ever heard is from Syria, Omar Souleyman. His piece, La Sidounak Sayyada (I’ll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You) is great, and everyone knows what is going on in Syria right now, which makes this music even more vital and vibrant then ever.

Recently we’ve been playing this incredible music from Vietnam arranged by Jacob Garchik, Lưu thy trường, It’s from the ancient opera tradition and it’s inspired by Kim Sinh who is one of Vietnam’s greatest musicians. After that we’ll once again return to something very thoughtful, an arrangement of Tusen Tankar (A Thousand Thoughts), a Swedish traditional song.

We’ll end the concert with Aleksandra Vrebalov’s …hold me, neighbor, in this storm… She’s unquestionably Serbia’s greatest living composer. It tells the story of recent events in Serbia and her grandmother is featured in it. I just realized that grandparents are featured in this concert quite a lot. In addition to Dan’s piece, Bryce’s piece is dedicated to his grandmother.

So that’s how we make a program. We want to take the listener through a large experience of music from many different vantage points and many places in the wide world of music. Hopefully the experience will add up to something that they’ve never had before, and hopefully it will open new ways of thinking and listening. That’s our attempt.

Mike Telin: Next year is your 40th anniversary.

DH: That’s right!

MT: I’m wondering how you have seen attitudes toward contemporary music change over those 40 years? Attitudes of musicians as well as audiences.

DH: For one thing, what was contemporary in 1973 is quite different now. It’s absolutely astonishing to be a member of the musical community in 2013. There are so many amazing possibilities right now. There has never been a time that I find to be so exciting and vibrant. I feel very lucky to have the vantage point of these years and to have the 750 or more commissioned pieces that we can take out of our tool box.

We have longstanding relationships with many wonderful composers and artists, and we continue to develop new relationships. It’s a fantastic time to be able to build on what we have done so far.

I’m not sure that answers that question, but one thing I can say is that all of the music we are playing in Cleveland would be unthinkable in 1973. None of it would have been possible and none of it was even available. So I think part of the job of Kronos is to reveal what is possible next. I’ve taken that as a serious challenge. I think music moves in all directions at the same time and that is the wonderful thing about it. It kind of oozes out of human experience.

Recently we’ve been playing the prelude to Tristan and Isolde because I saw this amazing movie, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, and the prelude is used throughout the film. I got addicted to that music and I realized that there was no way I could live my life and not play that piece and so we had to find a way of playing it. The great thing about being a musician is you can work with what magnetizes you. I wouldn’t trade being a musician for anything.

MT: Kronos is also dedicated to working with young quartets.

DH: Yes that’s true.

MT: What do you take away from that experience?

DH: One of the amazing things now is that there are groups all over the world who are playing music that Kronos commissioned. And, one of the things I love is to hear how our music is interpreted by other people. It’s really thrilling. I value it so much when I get the opportunity to hear how a group approaches music that was written for us. We worked with the composer directly, and so this generation — several generations removed from me — might be finding a whole other vocabulary to use on the same music.

For example, I heard a high school group playing one of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s pieces, Pannonia Boundless, and to hear these high school kids play this was so thrilling. It was just amazing and I can’t imagine any other field where I would get this kind of opportunity to be re-invigorated in that way. It was just beautiful.

MT: Kronos has also played a role in the development of many composers’ careers, for example the 30-and-under commissioning project.

DH: That’s been a great project. Recently we had three hundred and ninety-seven submissions. I’m using my other ear right now because my left ear is tired out. But seriously it was great. We’ve narrowed it down to fourteen and in a month or so we’ll have it all figured out. But of the fourteen, any one of those composers could write a great piece for us.

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Published on January 15, 2013

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