Last Night: Kronos Quartet in Kirkland

Jay Blakesberg
The Kronos Quartet played the Kirkland Performing Arts Center on Tuesday, Feb. 2.
It had been a while since the Kronos Quartet played this corner of the country -- I recall a Portland visit about 11 years ago and a Bumbershoot appearance a couple of years before that. Born in Seattle in 1973 (first violin David Harrington is the only remaining original member), they came back to the Kirkland PAC last night with a program that, in a way, caught us up on what they've been doing since we heard them last.

The highlight of the first half (among pieces by Bryce Dessner, Missy Mazzoli, and Terry Riley that reminded me that the invention of the Ctrl+V keystroke was not an unmixed blessing) was Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov's ... hold me, neighbor, in this storm ... . Her compelling, emotionally far-ranging tone poem is Bartok cubed, taking Balkan folk material and expanding it outside the bounds of a quartet with stamping, a bass drum, recorded sounds (bells, children, male and female singing voices) and an actual folk instrument, a two-stringed fiddle which Harrington switched out for his regular one.

After intermission came six movements from John Zorn's suite The Dead Man, bracing little bursts of grinding chaos (none over two minutes, most under one) that asks the players to produce sound just about every way except the usual bow-across-string method. For the last of these, the appeal is even more visual than sonic: Clouds of rosin dust puffed from their bows as they whipped them through the air. Arrangements of "Escalay" by Hamza el Din; "Smyrneiko Minore," a traditional Greek song; and Mexican group Café Tacuba's 12/12 were all lovely. My only issue is that in some of their arrangements (this happens on the Kronos' CDs, too), the prerecorded tracks take over and the Quartet provides only a string backing deep in the mix, which is kind of like attending a Renee Fleming recital to hear her play a recording of a choir and sing unobtrusively along with the sopranos. Two encores continued this international trend, an Egyptian tango from the '40s and, most gorgeous of all -- lush yet a little astringent, and haunting -- the song "Tusen Tankar" ("Thousand Thoughts"), by Swedish folk trio Triakel.

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