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Kronos Awakening

Violinist David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet, Awakening
photograph © Zoran Orlic
The Kronos Quartet opened its residency at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Friday night with the second performance of Awakening, a program premiered last year in San Francisco. Billed as a "musical meditation" on the anniversary of the September 11 attacks, it is a multicultural selection of music (with the composers' diverse nationalities proudly noted in the program), some new compositions and some arrangements of existing pieces. The group's reputation for innovative sound helped to sell most of the house, although having a number featuring a large chorus of kids (from Thomas Pullen Middle School in Landover) brought in a good number of their relatives, too. Having overheard some of those relatives' comments afterward was a reminder that the Kronos shtick can still raise eyebrows.

On what exactly is the listener supposed to meditate in this odd combination of sounds and noises? The first section is a medley of musical flavors from around the Islamic world, including instrumental recollections of prayer calls and traditional songs. How that world and the United States collided with one another is then represented in the other two sections, the first attempting to capture the devastation of the attack with raucous and vicious discord and the second offering an elegy of more consonant sounds. The usual instruments of the string quartet were combined with prerecorded tape (handled by audio engineer Brian Mohr), evocative lighting (designed by Laurence Neff), and a crazy collection of percussive devices.

Other Reviews:

Tim Smith, A moving, inclusive 'Awakening' (Baltimore Sun, September 11, 2007)

Robert Battey, Kronos Quartet (Washington Post, September 10, 2007)

Joshua Kosman, Kronos Quartet revives post-9/11 world solidarity (San Francisco Chronicle, September 13, 2006)
True, a large part of Awakening consists of can-banging Michael Gordon's The Sad Park, which is a terrifying evocation of the Twin Towers disaster, through the words of a child on a tape, gradually distorted in replay. There were moments of grave beauty, in the selection from Terry Riley's Sun Rings and Aulis Sallinen's simple but pretty Winter Was Hard, with those middle school voices sounding quite good. However, it does not seem that, in a work meditating on September 11, a listener should react with laughter, as I did more than once. When David Harrington growled into the microphone, à la Rammstein, or cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (a member of Kronos since 2005) sprayed sparks from a metal sander across the stage, it was something that, much like the September 11 attacks, we hope we will never have to experience again. Hopefully also, the insurer who covers the Kronos Quartet's instruments does not know what they do with power tools on stage. On the Transmigration of Souls, by John Adams and itself not without flaws, still strikes me as the most moving musical piece commemorating September 11 yet composed.

The Kronos Quartet will be back at Clarice Smith on February 8, 2008, for a performance of Tan Dun's Ghost Ship with the pipa player Wu Man.

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