Tuesday 24 October 2023

Long may they continue! Kronos Quartet's celebratory 50th anniversary concert at the Barbican

Kronos Quartet - Barbican Centre, 21 October 2023 (Photo: Mark Allan)
Kronos Quartet - Barbican Centre, 21 October 2023 (Photo: Mark Allan)

Severiano Briseño, George Crumb, Gabriella Smith, Peni Candra Rini, Philip Glass, Zachary James Watkins, Antonio Haskell , Dumisani Maraire Mai Nozipo, Jlin, Terry Riley, Alfred Schnittke, Steve Reich; Kronos Quartet, Yahael Camara Onono, Peni Candra Rini; Barbican Centre
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 21 October 2023

An incredible evening celebrating a half-century of trailblazing music making

Returning to the Barbican on 21 October 2023 as a part of their continent-spanning 50th anniversary tour, the Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, violin, John Sherba, violin, Hank Dutt, viola, Paul Wiancko, cello) brought an extended programme of greatest hits from their extensive back catalogue as well as (of course, this is the Kronos Quartet) brand new music being premiered for the first time.

These four string players are genuine superstars of the contemporary classical scene, recognised as instrumental in the development of the string quartet across the last fifty years, both in their programming and commitment to new music, but also in their dedication to commissioning literally hundreds of new works for the medium. Most of the music in this concert reflects that collaborative approach, composed for, arranged for or commissioned by the quartet, the few exceptions including an excerpt from George Crumb's Black Angels - a piece which Kronos recorded over forty years ago, and which remains a central part of their repertoire.

After the flamboyant Latin rhythms and amplified grit of the opening piece, Osvaldo Golijov's arrangement of Briseño's El Sinaloense, delivered with the expected Kronos drive and swagger, the majority of the music presented in the first half was lyrical, reflective, even elegiac in mood. Revealed with a theatrical flourish, the tuned wine glasses of Black Angels formed a ghostly accompaniment to the plangent, almost vocal, cello line from Wiancko, while the closing movement from Glass's Third Quartet was a glowing exemplar of stillness through repetition, beautifully judged in its phrasing.

A new commission for the quartet by California-based composer Gabriella Smith used the quartet to comment musically on spoken texts from climate change activists, building though a variety of textural and timbral soundscapes to an effective and dramatic climax on the repeated phrase "Keep going", which induced a ferocious frenzy of sound from the strongly amplified quartet.

Kronos Quartet, Peni Candra Rini - Barbican Centre, 21 October 2023 (Photo: Mark Allan)
Kronos Quartet, Peni Candra Rini - Barbican Centre, 21 October 2023 (Photo: Mark Allan)

By way of contrast, Indonesian composer Peni Candra Rini joined the quartet as a vocalist in a mesmerising performance of her own composition Maduswara, an extended work which revealed sections with varied and distinct character. Especially striking was the interplay between her flexible, microtonal glissando and the responses from violinist David Harrington, which was followed by a wild and furious evocation of the spirit of traditional gamelan music, including frenzied gong ostinatos and outbursts that would not have been out of place in the world of wayang kulit. The first half concluded with a simple and effective setting of the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson's 1932 recording of God Shall Wipe All Tears Away, which cast a gentle spotlight on the soulful and lyrical viola playing of Hank Dutt, sensitively supported by his long-term colleagues with shimmering intensity. 

After a short interval, the second half opened with another featured guest, djembe player Yahael Camara Onono, who provided a spirited and precise rhythmic counterpoint to this traditional melody. The energy in the second set remained high with a powerful, electrifying performance of Jlin's Little Black Book, an invigorating, dubstep-inspired stomp, with chattering col legno patterns over pounding kick drum beats and grinding bass lines from 'cellist Paul Wiancko, which formed a real highlight of the evening.

Long-term collaborator Terry Riley was naturally included in this celebratory programme too, his witty, delicate and hilarious Lunch In Chinatown allowing the quartet an opportunity to demonstrate their dramatic vocal delivery skills alongside their undeniable talent as instrumentalists, while raising plenty of chuckles from the audience.

Originally a choral work by Alfred Schnittke, the quartet's own arrangement of Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief was exactly as its title suggested. Sorrowful, sighing, and filled with the deepest feelings of loss and despair, with the last, echoing repetitions finally fading into an uneasy silence, this served to showcase yet another side of these wonderfully versatile musicians.

Kronos Quartet, Yahael Camara Onono - Barbican Centre, 21 October 2023 (Photo: Mark Allan)
Kronos Quartet, Yahael Camara Onono - Barbican Centre, 21 October 2023 (Photo: Mark Allan)

The concert concluded with Reich's ecstatic Triple Quartet, the onstage musicians accompanied by and accompanying their own pre-recorded selves in propulsive, driving and rhythmically precise playing, creating a dense network of sound, and filling the hall with intense layers of counterpoint. Following a standing ovation from the sold-out Barbican audience, the quartet were easily persuaded to provide an encore, and they delivered with a grinding, flamboyant and funky rendition of Jimi Hendrix's Purple Rain. The versatility and range of style, genre and expression heard across this celebratory concert was the hallmark of this remarkable ensemble, who continue to defy expectations, break boundaries and fuse different musical cultures in their fiftieth year, becoming legends in their own time. Long may they continue!

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

Kronos Quartet - Barbican - October 21st 2023
Kronos Quartet
Yahael Camara Onono - Djembe
Peni Candra Rini - Vocals

Severiano Briseño (arr. Osvaldo Golijov) - El Sinaloense (The Man from Sinaloa)
George Crumb - God-music from Black Angels
Gabriella Smith - Keep Going
Peni Candra Rini (arr. Jacob Garchik) - Maduswara
Philip Glass - String Quartet No. 3 (Mishima): VI. Mishima-Closing
Zachary James Watkins - Excerpt from Peace Be Till featuring the recorded voice of Dr. Clarence B. Jones, with video by Evan Neff
Antonio Haskell (arr. Jacob Garchik) - God Shall Wipe All Tears Away (inspired by Mahalia Jackson)
Dumisani Maraire Mai Nozipo (Mother Nozipo) with special guest Yahael Camara Onono, percussion
Jlin (arr. Jacob Garchik) Little Black Book
Terry Riley - This Assortment of Atoms – One Time Only!: I. Lunch in Chinatown
Alfred Schnittke (arr. Kronos Quartet) - Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled with Grief
Steve Reich - Triple Quartet * In three movements (played without pause)

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