Acclaimed San Francisco string quartet celebrate their 50th anniversary with a typically dazzling, inventive and adventurous performance
Since their inception in 1973, San Francisco’s Kronos Quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, viola player Hank Dutt, and cellist Paul Wiancko – have developed a reputation for being one of the most uniquely inventive, daring and adventurous of ensembles, playing a diverse range of music, a lot of which exists outside of traditional chamber/classical repertoire. As part of their 50th anniversary tour they paid another visit to the Barbican to follow on from their memorable performances at the venue in 2016 and 2018.
Tonight’s show begins with a short video introduction featuring the musicians talking about their time together, Dutt’s remarks comparing being in a string quartet to “being in a bad, sexless marriage” is arguably the most memorable (he also rather more prosaically re-states their goal of “wanting to find piece of music so powerful that it would stop bullets from killing people”). What follows is a selection of delicious and exotic musical small plates, 12 pieces that showcase their dazzling talents.
They begin with El Sinaloense (The Man from Sinaloa) by Mexican composer Severiano Briseño which kicks things off with free flowing colour, vibrant flamboyancy and jazzy playfulness. In what seems to be a deliberate move to the other end of the musical spectrum, it’s followed by God-music from George Crumb’s Black Angels. It sees three of the quartet move to the back of the stage to ‘play’ a selection of water filled glasses, resulting in a short piece of near ascetic minimalism.
Later, two guests are introduced on stage. First, Indonesian singer Peni Candra Rini joins for a performance of her own composition Maduswara which begins in low key fashion before taking in some unexpected vocal gymnastics and theatrical musical shapes. Yahael Camara Onono, leader of young jazz outfit Balimaya Project, appears later for Mai Nozipo by Zimbabwean composer Dumisani Maraire. It’s another piece that reflects the quartet’s interest in global sounds, all supple rhythms and dance-like flair.
Other intriguing selections include an excerpt from Keep Going by American composer Gabriella Smith that incorporates birdsong, esoteric spoken word elements and features cellist Wiancko clawing at his instrument. Similarly, Peace Be Till by Zachary James Watkins is another multimedia offering featuring the recorded voice of Dr Clarence B Jones (the writer of Martin Luther King Jr’s I Have A Dream speech). Another trip back into history comes with God Shall Wipe All Tears Away by Antonio Haskell (inspired by the American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson).
In contrast, a performance of the closing movement to Philip Glass’ String Quartet No 3, a glistening still pool of calm provides the evening’s most orthodox moment. Later, their ravishingly beautiful transposition of a section of Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto For Choir has similar levels of purity.
The way they switch from more traditional pieces to contemporary material is impressive. Little Black Book by American footwork artist Jlin features jittery uncoilings and wiry string deconstructions while Lunch In Chinatown from Terry Riley’s This Assortment of Atoms – One Time Only! sees each player vocally interject with lines from an imagined conversation. The best is arguably saved until last with Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet, which sees the composer’s familiar brand of minimalism given a rigorous and exacting overhaul. They return for a thrilling encore of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix. It puts the cap on a performance that balances an unashamed cerebral approach with relatable human warmth and brings with it typically spectacular results.