Monday, May 23, 2011

Kronos Quartet


The highlight of this year's  Norfolk and Norwich Arts Festival  for myself was the opportunity to  hear the world-famous string-players, the Kronos quartet. The music festival opened with an unique event, the sound of a solo saxophonist accompanied by no less than 200 amateur saxophone players, of all shapes and sizes, throughout the region. It was an extraordinary sound to hear in the city centre outside the  Forum, and no small feat to assemble the collective players upon a stage and then to  depart in  a caterpillar procession .

Memories of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival stretch far back to the days when it was known as the Triennial Festival and held  once every 3 years, during October. My very earliest memory is that of the composer Benjamin Britten dropping in upon a rehearsal of his 'Cantata Noyes Fludd to thank the singers for their efforts. In fact the NNFT is the oldest and longest -running of all British music Festivals. Other recent  highlights which immediately spring to mind include hearing an electrifying performance of Shostakovich's Ballet suite 'The Bolt' by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, Mahler's 9th symphony performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, a Sea-side  choral oratorio  by Ray Davies of the Kinks, a recorder concerto by David Bedford, the viol consort of Fretwork playing a new work by John Tavener, and the legendary 'father of minimalism' Terry Riley perform, among many other happy musical memories of the Festival. Actually, it's the one guaranteed two weeks in the year a Norwich concert-goer can be guaranteed the opportunity to hear  world-artists perform.

The Kronos Quartet have been playing to audiences  for over thirty years now; their ability to casually change genre and style to demonstrate the flexible  texture and expressiveness of the string quartet is simply amazing. I first heard them playing on Philip Glass's experimental song-cycle 'Songs from Liquid Days' (86) and their sensitive accompanying Astor Piazolla upon the bandeleon in 'Five Tango Sensations', (91) is a firm favourite of mine, as is their playing on the Philip Glass soundtrack to the original 'Dracula'  film (2001). 

From American composers such as Glass, Reich and Riley, to Argentinian tango, Indian Raga and Bollywood to Gypsy folk music, the Kronos  have now released over forty  albums,  the programme at  the Theatre Royal Norwich was equally varied. They played a soft poignant piece by Laurie Anderson entitled 'Flow' and a powerful, pulsing, dramatic theme by Clint Mansell from the soundtrack to the Darren Aronfonsky film 'The Fountain'. It didn't exactly help that the Kronos had decided not to play the evening's programme in the sequence advertised, but this was more than made up for in rapport as frontman David Harrington cracked a subtle joke to the audience, (You have your favourite Icelandic composers, this piece is by ours). The Kronos are not shy of using amplification or tape-recording which more often than not enhances their harmony and unity, as was demonstrated in a new work by Steve Reich, WTC 9//11 which used voices recollecting the tragic event. 

The overwhelming sense I apprehended from hearing the Kronos quartet was that they seemed well aware of their legacy. They have distinguished themselves as reinvigorating and reviving the string quartet to a new world-wide audience. As collective musicians they've proved the traditional combination of instruments is infinitely capable of performing rock and pop as well as jazz or modern minimalism, and this comes across in the confidence, technical brilliance and the unity of their playing. No other string quartet  in modern times has achieved as much, and their performance at Norwich was a memorable one, not least for their generous three encores which included the ever-popular  'Flugufrelsarinn'  by Icelander, Sigur Ros.


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