Review: Kronos Quartet, in an Emotionally Packed Performance

Originally appeared on NY Times – MARCH 8, 2015

The Kronos Quartet offered a program of new and recent works full of ideas in the Late Nights at Zankel Hall series on Saturday, and the composers’ program notes were sometimes more compelling than the music.

The program was dedicated to the quartet’s longtime lighting designer, Laurence Neff, who died last year in a fall from a tree he was pruning. So the emotional center came in the Carnegie Hall premiere of Bryce Dessner’s “Tenebre,” a work written in 2011 for Mr. Neff’s 50th birthday.

“Tenebre” reverses the course of the Christian Tenebrae service from light to darkness, as candles are successively extinguished. Mr. Dessner’s work begins in near-darkness and progresses to light, in a nod to Mr. Neff’s profession, and includes references to music by Tallis, Gesualdo, Palestrina and others. Kronos gave a taut performance, deeply felt.

The other wrench of the night came at the end, with the New York premiere of “Beyond Zero: 1914-18,” a 2014 collaboration between the Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and the filmmaker Bill Morrison commemorating the centenary of World War I’s start. It is, through most of its 39-minute length, purposefully assaultive to both eye and ear.

Mr. Morrison uses historic film, much of it in extreme decay, so that often mere glimpses of activity are seen “through a veil of physical degradation,” in his words. The constant flicker through gaps of white light is wearing, but not nearly so much as the sounds Ms. Vrebalov elicits from the strings: squeals, screeches, scrapes and squawks. The image of fingernails on a blackboard comes to mind, and stays.

The piece begins with recorded Mahler and Bartok and ends with members of Serbia’s Byzantine Chorus of Kovilj Monastery singing a hymn, “Eternal Memory to the Virtuous.” It is a gripping experience.

There were also two world premieres: “Dear Creator, Help Us Return to the Center of Our Hearts,” a 2014 work by the Canadian composer Derek Charke; and “On Parole,” a new work by the Dutch composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven.

Mr. Charke’s work grew out of a visit to the Athabasca oil sands in northern Alberta, Canada, in 2013. A 29-minute tapestry, it incorporates recorded sounds, everything from the rumblings and beepings of heavy machinery to bird song.

These evocations are woven into string writing of a strongly minimalist bent, smoothly but seemingly randomly. There is no coherent statement, least of all any clear expression of concern for the environment, presumably the work’s intention. (“It’s obvious that we’re not being kind to our planet,” Mr. Charke writes in a program note. “But it’s not a simple fix.”)

In “On Parole,” Mr. Twaalfhoven gives a fresh twist to an old theme: the tyranny of the bar line. With “no bar lines to restrict or imprison the notes” at the start, he writes, “the composition is a constant search for togetherness in the realm of freedom.”

The Kronos players made good use of that freedom in fluid interplay, but when they were joined by some 40 young players from Kaufman Music Center’s Face the Music, togetherness somewhat lost its hold.