Monday, June 13, 2011

Making Connections: Kronos Quartet at Luminato

The Kronos Quartet is celebrating 38 years as a vital, interesting and progressive musical ensemble. Led by founder and musical director David Harrington, this “string” quartet has foregone the conventional classical music repertoire for more adventurous ground. It’s a group that never fails to take risks. As a result, Kronos has been leading the way for new composers and in the fusing of divergent musical styles. The Kronos Quartet has always been interested in breaking down barriers between musicians and audience expectations. It’s a group that pioneered the fusion of Western and Eastern music that has inspired many people and by the same token alienated a few more along the way. But that’s the price of great music in my opinion, as the Kronos Quartet perseveres in spite of the musical trends that continue to surround them. So it comes as no surprise to learn that the quartet’s appearances this week in Toronto are programmed to expand the musical palette once more.

 The Kronos Quartet came to participate in the 5th annual Luminato Festival continuing until June 19th. Friday night they opened the festival with a remarkable show at the acoustically adorned Koerner Hall. The concert featured a performance by the quartet in the first half followed by a joint performance with the Alim Qasimov Ensemble from Azerbaijan. A few years ago, Alim Qasimov approached Harrington with a recording of his music called “Mugham” originating in Azerbaijan. It’s folk music that draws on Iranian, Arabic and Turkish music. Qasimov could be considered the leader in this form of music because he’s recorded nine albums and been awarded with the IMC/UNESCO Music Prize. This award has an impressive list of winners including Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Harrington was interested in making music with Qasimov but the barrier was purely technical as Kronos comes from a tradition of writing music down versus Qasimov’s oral tradition of learning by ear. The collaboration took some work to iron out the details but proved successful as I learned and heard last Friday night in Koerner Hall.

Art Curator’s often talk about a “thread” that runs through a body of work. These “threads” connect the pieces, be it photographs or paintings, in a way that reflects the deeper intentions of the artist. For Kronos, whose raison d’etre is to explore musical connections, this concert with the Qasimov Ensemble succeeded in making threads between Western and Eastern European music.

The concert opened with five contrasting pieces of original material that carried our ears from a vigorous composition by American Bryce Dessner called “Aheym” (Homeward) to an arrangement of an Indian Raga then to an Iraqi pop song followed by a traditional Greek folk song and closing with an Egyptian tango. Only theKronos Quartet could pull off an elaborate mix like this and they did it beautifully. Hank Dutt was particularly strong on the Indian raga piece called “Raga Mishra Bhairavi” by Ram Narayan. He created a kind of transcendental sound with an earthy feeling. The piece succeeded because it actually featured what Harrington called the “grandfather of the cello” the sarangi, played by John Sherba.

The second half of the concert featured Kronos with the Ensemble playing a set of five, traditional Azerbaijani songs, “My Spirited Horse,” “I Gave My Word,” “Let’s Be Kind,” “Don’t Leave, Don’t Leave” and “Your Eyebrows are Bow-Like.” The suite, if you will, moved from the graceful to the aggressive in rhythm and tone. Often, Alim would sing a contrasting vocal with his daughter, Fargana. The two would first solo then come together from time-to-time as the songs dictated. Their ensemble carried the work while Kronos supplemented the music or the rhythm. Most of the time, the fusion was a success as the music ebbed and flowed, but I would have preferred at least one song with just the ensemble. Kronos played on everything and it would have been nice to have them briefly lay-out for a number just to hear the original mugham sound. That said, the concert was an engaging and at times moving experience for the small, but appreciative audience.

Kronos Quartet performs June 15 at the Jane Mallet theatre with Chinese musician Wu Man, the last of a series of five appearances during the Luminato Festival.

John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.

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