Kronos Quartet returns to Macky with some unfinished business

“Music for Change,” cancelled in 2020, comes back in revised form Jan. 13

By Peter Alexander Jan. 11 at 1:30 p.m.

The Kronos Quartet has some unfinished business in Boulder.

Kronos Quartet: John Sherba, Hank Dutt, David Harrington, Sonny Yang (L-R)

The path-breaking string quartet was scheduled to perform at Macky Auditorium in March of 2020, but like most performances around that time, their concert was cancelled. Now they will return to Macky with a revised version of that same program scheduled for Jan. 13, and—fingers crossed!—so far the visit is still on.

The original 2020 program, titled “Music for Change: The ‘60s, the Years that Changed America,” was organized around protest songs from the 1960s, arranged especially for Kronos. The centerpiece was to have been a celebration of Pete Seeger’s music for his 100th birthday.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, 1969

Many of the same pieces are on the program for this year, although the Pete Seeger celebration has been replaced. Music that has survived the transition include arrangements of the “Star Spangled Banner” inspired by Jimi Hendrix‘s famous 1969 performance at Woodstock and “Strange Fruit” inspired by Billie Holliday; “Glorious Mahalia” by Stacy Garrop which features the recorded voices of Mahalia Jackson and Studs Terkel, and “Peace Be Till” by Zachary James Watkins, which incorporates the recorded voice of Clarence B. Jones, Martin Luther King Jr.’s speechwriter.

Added to the program for 2022 are another Mahalia Jackson arrangement, “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away”; an arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Alabama”; “Colonizer (Remix)” by Tanya Tagaq arranged for Kronos; and Michael Gordon’s “Campaign Songs #1,” one of a series of short pieces recorded by the Kronos players separately during the height of the pandemic.

“I wanted to play a concert like we’re going to do in Boulder, years ago,” David Harrington, Kronos’s first violinist and guiding spirit says. “It’s taken many, many years to arrive at the kind of work that we’re able to do now.”

Stebe Reich

The program opens without Kronos playing a single note, with Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music featuring four microphones swinging freely above speakers, creating feedback as they cross directly over the speakers. Eventually all four microphones stop above the speakers, creating a bed of constant feedback from which the Hendrix-inspired “Star Spangled Banner” emerges.

“It’s audacious, the idea that we can start a program with microphones,” Harrington says. “I love that! It sounds like fog to begin with, and then slowly it gets more and more together, to the point where there’s a fabric of pulsating feedback. From that is going to be the ‘Star Spangled Banner’.”

Other works on the program stand out for their impactfulness. One of these is certainly the arrangement of Abel Meerepol’s “Strange Fruit.” Famously sung at the height of the Civil Rights struggle in the 1940s and ‘50s by Billie Holliday, the song describing a lynching became a tortured anthem for the anti-lynching movement. Rejected by Columbia Records, Holliday’s recording on the Commodore label was later entered in the National Recording Registry.

“’Strange Fruit’ is at the solar plexus of American music and American culture,” Harrington says. “The quality of (Holliday’s) voice is definitely in my ear. When we play that piece, her voice is singing inside of me.”

Another piece that came from the Civil Rights struggle is an arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Alabama.” Coltrane wrote the piece as a response to the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four African-American girls. “The way certain musicians are able to respond to events, and attempt to create a counterbalance, to me is so inspiring,” Harrington says.

Tanya Tagaq

Reflecting the breadth of Kronos’s interests, both musically and politically, is “Colonizer (Remix)” by Tanya Tagaq. An Inuk throat singer from Iqaluktuuttiaq (Cambridge Bay) in Nunavut, Canada, Tagaq wrote the song as a response to performing in what she characterizes as “symbolically colonial spaces.”

“’Colonizer’ is a statement,” Tagaq has written. “There is guilt in complacency. Accountability means taking action.”

The political implications of the program are not accidental, but come out of Harrington’s thoughts about his family. “In 2003 I had just become a grandfather for the first time, and I was thinking about the world (my granddaughter) was going to grow up into,” he says. Historian Howard Zinn told him that political leaders are actually afraid of artists like Kronos, because they know the artists cannot be controlled.

“I thought to myself, if those types are actually afraid of people like me that use violins to communicate, then I am doing what I can do,” Harrington says. The desire to make the world a better place for the coming generations through Kronos’s programming grew from that thought. 

Another quality that characterizes Kronos’s is adventurousness. Their repertoire has ranged over the world and across many musical styles. “I’m so glad that we’ve had the years that we’ve had to explore,” Harrington says. “The only thing that happens when you explore is you find things, and then you want to find more.”

That adventurousness is fueled by Harrington’s curiosity. “How could anybody not be curious?” he asks. “I want to do the most (I can to) ensure that I keep curiosity alive. Learning new things is humanity at its best.”

Not that he thinks he has found all the answers. “People think I know something about music, but I don’t know how it works,” he admits. “As listeners, we’re all in the same boat. You never know when something in music is going to penetrate to the deepest possible place within yourself.

“It’s almost incalculable.”

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Kronos photographed in San Francisco, CA March 26, 2013©Jay Blakesberg

“Music for Change”
Kronos Quartet 
David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; Sunny Yang, cello
Brian H. Scott, lighting designer, and Scott Fraser, sound designer

  • Steve Reich: Pendulum Music
  • “Star Spangled Banner” (inspired by Jimi Hendrix, arr. Stephen Prutsman and Kronos)
  • Michael Gordon: “Campaign Songs #1”
  • Stacy Garrop: Glorious Mahalia, featuring the recorded voices of Mahalia Jackson and Studs Terkel
  • Antonio Haskell, arr. Jacob Garchik: “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away” (inspired by Mahalia Jackson) 
  • Tanya Tagaq (arr. Tanya Tagaq, Kronos Quartet, and Joel Tarman): “Colonizer (Remix)”
  • Abel Meeropol, arr. Jacob Garchik: “Strange Fruit” (inspired by Billie Holiday)
  • John Coltrane (arr. Jacob Garchik): “Alabama”
  • Zachary James Watkins: Peace Be Till featuring the voice of Dr. Clarence B. Jones

7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13
Macky Auditorium 
TICKETS

UPDATE: Cancellations of CU Performances; statement from Boulder Phil

Eklund Opera, Takács Quartet are included in the latest round of cancelations

By Peter Alexander March 11 at 3:57 p.m.

CU Presents and the University of Colorado, Boulder. have just announced the cancellation of all Spring 2020 College of Music events. Their statement specifies that:

This includes Eklund Opera, Artist Series, Takacs Quartet, ensemble performances and all other events. We will be in touch with ticketholders soon regarding next steps.

Please note that this includes the Eklund Opera production of  The Marriage of Figaro (scheduled for March 13–15) and the performance by the Kronos Quartet (March 19) previously covered in Boulder Weekly and on this blog.

The following is also posted on the CU Presents Web page:

We are currently working with the university to understand the impact this has on our events and will update patrons with more information as soon as possible. . . . CU Presents is committed to the health, safety and wellbeing of everyone at our events. We are actively monitoring the global coronavirus or COVID-19 situation and would like to point you to updates and resources from the University of Colorado Boulder and Boulder County Health.

The Boulder Philharmonic has sent a statement to its patrons and ticket buyers concerning the cancelation of its upcoming concerts March 21 and 22. This information will be shortly available on the Boulder Phil Web page.  Here is the message that has been sent to patrons:

We regret to report that the Boulder Phil will be unable to proceed with concerts scheduled for March 21 at Macky Auditorium and March 22 at Pinnacle Performing Arts Center. CU announced today the suspension of all campus classes and gatherings, and we are supporting public health and safety by suspending our concerts until the virus threat has passed. We hope these preventative measures will be effective as our community does its part to protect our citizens.
We view this change as a postponement, and we will reschedule the concert if at all possible. We will keep you informed of developments as we have information.
For all ticket holders, your tickets is valid for a rescheduled performance of this program, or for exchange to a future concert. If you prefer you may donate the value of your ticket to the Phil, or request a refund, by calling the box office, 303-449-1343 starting Monday.
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NOTE: As much as possible, I will attempt to keep updates concerning cancellations due to the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 current on the Web page. Anyone with further information is encouraged to contact this site at alex.peterm@gmail.com.

CU Presents’ 2019–20 season features Grammy winners and nominees

Kronos Quartet returns, Eklund Opera presents It’s a Wonderful Life

By Peter Alexander April 4 at 4:15 p.m.

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CU Macky Auditorium

The coming season of CU Presents at Macky Auditorium will feature the return of the Kronos Quartet, not heard in Boulder since 2014; the first appearance here by A Far Cry string orchestra; and the combination return/first local performance of Jake Heggie’s and Gene Scheer’s opera It’s a Wonderful Life, workshopped at CU in June 2018 and now scheduled for a full production by CU’s Eklund Opera Program.

These and other music, dance and theater events have been announced as part of the 2019-20 season of CU Presents. The full schedule for the season is listed here; see a schedule of the music events below .

In addition to CU’s own Takacs Quartet in their annual series on campus, the Grammy winners on the schedule are Kronos Quartet and the Chick Corea trio. A Far Cry was nominated for Grammys in 2014 and 2018.

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A Far Cry sting orchestra. Photo by Yoon S. Byun.

Founded in Boston in 2007, A Far Cry is an adventurous string orchestra. They are a democratic, self-conducted ensemble in which decisions are made collectively and leadership rotates among the players—or “Criers,” as they like to call themselves. They were recently part of a commissioning project with pianist Simone Dinnerstein for Philp Glass’s Third Piano Concerto, which Dinnerstein played with the Boulder Philharmonic as part of the orchestra’s 2017–18 season.

A Far Cry will perform a new program for the tour that will bring them to Boulder on Feb. 8, 2020. Under the title “Memory,” the program will comprise works by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Elgar and Arvo Pärt.

Kronos

Kronos Quartet. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

Over 46 years, Kronos Quartet has been known for the innovative programming and presentation of music for string quartet, and especially new works. More than 900 works have been written for Kronos, by composers from all over the world. Their extensive discography, including more than 40 studio albums, has its own Wikipedia entry that also lists compilation albums, video albums, film soundtracks, and Kronos’ contributions with other artists ranging from Linda Ronstadt to Nine Inch Nails.

Kronos has been nominated for a Grammy 11 times, and won twice. In recognition of the 2014 centennial of World War I, in 2014 they presented the film Beyond Zero in Macky. A reconstruction by Bill Morrison of film from World War I, Beyond Zero featured a score by Aleksandra Vrebalov played live by Kronos. For their performance at Macky in March 19, 2020, they will present a new program, “Music for Change: The 60s,” including a celebration of Pete Seeger’s music and a work inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Houston Grand Opera world premiere production of It’s a Wonderful Life

Heggie and Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life was commissioned by the Houston Grand Opera, with the San Francisco Opera and the Jacobs School of Music at Indiana University. The opera is based on the 1946 film of the same name, directed by Frank Capra and starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore and Henry Travers.

The original production premiered in Houston Dec. 2, 2016, with subsequent performances in San Francisco and Bloomington, Ind. Prior to the premiere, the opera received workshop performances in Boulder in June 2016, through the Eklund Opera’s New Opera Workshop (CU NOW).

The Eklund Opera will present an all-new production of the opera Nov. 15–17, 2019, in Macky Auditorium.

Music events from CU Presents’ 2019–20 season are listed below:

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Artist Series at Macky Auditorium

Music events

Chick Corea Trilogy
with Christian McBride and Brian Blade
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019,
Bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade join Chorea for an evening of Corea classics and jazz standards.

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Nobuntu

Nobuntu
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 30
“Nobuntu”—an expression meaning feminine familial love, humility and kindness—is the name of a female a cappella quintet from Zimbabwe that performs traditional Zimbabwean songs, Afro jazz and gospel.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard, piano
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19

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Natalie McMaster and Donnell Leahy

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy
“A Celtic Family Christmas”
7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 17

A Far Cry string orchestra
“Memory”
Music by Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Arvo Pärt and Elgar
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, 2020

Kronos Quartet
“Music for Change: The 60s, The Years That Changed America”
7:30 p.m. Thursday, March 19, 2020

Holiday Festival

Dec. 6-8, 2019
CU Boulder’s Holiday tradition featuring student choirs, bands and orchestras—along with faculty performers—in a concert of holiday favorites

Takács Quartet at Grusin Music Hall

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Takács Quartet

Chamber Series:
4 p.m. Sundays Sept. 8, Oct. 27, Jan. 12, March 8, May 3
Encore Series:
7:30 p.m. Mondays Sept. 9, Oct. 28, Jan. 13, March 9, May 4

4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10, and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 11: The Takacs Quartet presents the Tesla Quartet

Eklund Opera Program

It’s a Wonderful Life
Music by Jake Heggie; Libretto by Gene Scheer
Nov. 15-17 at Macky Auditorium

The Marriage of Figaro
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
March 13-15 at Macky Auditorium

Béatrice et Bénédict
Music and libretto by Hector Berlioz, based on Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing
April 23-26 at the Music Theatre

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Season tickets for these and other events presented by CU Presents are now on sale and my be purchased here. The complete listing of the CU Presents 2019–20 season, including dance performances and productions of the CU Department of Theater and Dance, may be found here.

 

 

Kronos Quartet delivers powerful, disturbing, and inspired performance

By Peter Alexander

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Kronos’ Quartet performance of Aleksandra Vrebalov’s Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, Wednesday night (Oct. 8) at Macky Auditorium, was the one of the most powerful concert experiences I can recall.

Commissioned by Kronos to mark the centennial of the beginning of World War I, Beyond Zero is by turns beautiful, disturbing, haunting and almost unbearably intense—as befits the subject, one of the most brutal and tragic events of human history. Kronos’ performance was an inspired feat of musicianship and athletic endurance: once begun, the music scarcely lets up until the very end, with harsh, rhythmic chords propelling the piece from climax to climax.

There are times that the music becomes almost unendurable in its intensity, but that again is an expression of a war that was literally unendurable for millions. How else can you put into music the suffering of a continent and the agony of the soldiers in the trenches, year after year? Like a visit to the battlefields, it is sometimes disturbing, but it is a vital and deeply moving experience that enlarges the soul.

Included in the performance are recordings that Vrebalov collected from the time of the war, including military commands, air raid sirens, inflammatory speech, the composer Bartók playing his own music, and ending with the chanting of Byzantine monks fading into deep silence. These imported sounds heighten the music’s impact.

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Still image from Bill Morisson’s film accompanying ‘Beyond Zero’

Beyond Zero is performed in front of a screen on which are projected archival films from the time of the war, restored by experimental film maker Bill Morrison. The film, most of it badly deteriorated, was scanned in high definition and includes both the original filmed images and the marks of deterioration—oxidation, discoloration and other forms of physical degradation. The sometimes ghostly images are evocative of a world long past, and in their imperfections are eloquent commentary on the war itself.

There are many images that will long remain with me, but I will mention just two: the opening sequence, in which a flickering blue fog of discolored film gradually reveals an approaching line of early tanks, which seems to symbolize the world’s gradual but inexorable descent into mechanized war; and a large group of uniformed men whose image is consumed by the loss of the crumbling film, much as an entire generation of young European men was consumed by the war.

The whole multi-media experience is far too much to grasp in a single performance. I didn’t know whether to watch the film, listen to the music, attend to the combination of music and captured sound, or simply admire the sheer hard work and technical accomplishment of the players. I for one will eagerly await the release of a DVD of Beyond Zero, so I can come to grips with all that it expresses.

Beyond Zero was the second half of a concert that also included a world premiere and an appearance by David Barsamian of Boulder’s Alternative Radio. The first half opened with Death to Kosmische by Nicole Lizée. Kronos’ first violinist, David Harrington, says that Death to Kosmische is “sonic fun,” but you would not get the whole joke if you didn’t know that “Kosmische” is a form of East German electro-pop music from the 1960s and ‘70s.

Knowing that, you hear the humor as the music sonically eats its own tail and ends in a burst of electronic distortion. Clearly, the composer was no fan of “Kosmische” music, and she revels in its death. Equally, Kronos relishes playing the piece, including a variety of electronic devices; their fun is infectious even if you don’t know what or whom is being threatened with death.

Kronos next played the world premiere of Speak, Time, an accomplished score by Yuri Boguinia, a young composer who grew up in Boulder and now lives in New York. The score is an episodic exploration of sounds from the quartet, all skillfully knitted together by Boguinia into a mostly-balanced whole. I say mostly, because some sections seemed overly long in relation to the rest, but the music, which seems to trace an unspecified narrative arc, is intriguing throughout.

David Barsamian of Boulder's Alternative Radio

David Barsamian of Boulder’s Alternative Radio

David Barsamian was introduced to the audience as one of Harrington’s “favorite persons.” He has worked with Kronos several times in the past, providing spoken texts over their playing. On this occasion Kronos played four songs from Turkey, Greece, Poland and Armenia—cultures deeply impacted by World War I—as an informal prelude to the second half of the concert. Barsamian gave thoughts relevant to the first three countries, and played a recording of his mother, a survivor of the First World War’s Armenian genocide, for the last.

Everything Barsamian had to say was articulate and appropriate for the occasion—although even in Boulder I don’t suppose everyone agrees with his left-wing point of view. Nonetheless, Harrington’s decision to bring him in for the performance strikes me as both meaningful and confounding. His words would have more impact if they were heard apart, without music that divided the attention and occasionally covered Barsamian’s voice. I for one would rather have heard the music—beautiful and touching folk songs that represent the kind of cross-cultural performance that Kronos does so well—and had time later to reflect on Barsamian’s literary contribution.

Kronos Quartet: David Harington, John Sherba, Sunny Yang and Hank Dutt. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet.

Kronos Quartet: David Harrington, John Sherba, Sunny Yang and Hank Dutt. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet.

One reason for Kronos’ commissioning of Beyond Zero is the fact that as a country, we have largely forgotten World War I. In comparison to World War II, the “good war” of the celebrated “greatest generation,” it hardly registers in our consciousness. And yet we still live in the world that was created by the barbarity of the war and blunders of the post-war peace process. Harrington wanted to remind us all of that, and in that context Barsamian has much to say. But I am not convinced that making an artistic performance into a didactic exercise serves either the music or the message being conveyed.

In the end, it is the music that matters. And because Kronos plays such exceptional and striking music, music that itself monopolizes our attention, it is easy to forget how good they are at what they do, and how their adventurous, passionate explorations have changed the musical landscape. Whether or not you like the music they play—and I admittedly don’t like everything they have done over the years—it is always worth hearing. From the most tender and gentle pieces to the most fierce and aggressive, Kronos crosses borders, explores limits, and takes us all along for the journey.

They have been doing this for 40 years now, and remarkably all but the cellist are founding members. Such longevity is remarkable, especially when you see how physically demanding some of their playing can be. Whatever they do, they do it with commitment and technical polish. Long may their adventure continue!

Boulder’s Barsamian joins Kronos Quartet for Oct. 8 concert at Macky

Concert will feature music commemorating the 1914 outbreak of World War I

By Peter Alexander

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Kronos Quartet performing Beyond Zero. Photo courtesy of Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet, always bold, brings Boulder artists to Boulder for their appearance at Macky Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8.

The concert will feature the world premiere of Speak, Time by Yuri Boguinia, who grew up in Boulder; and an appearance by broadcaster and writer David Barsamian, who founded Boulder’s Alternative Radio in 1986.

Barsamian will speak while Kronos performs songs from the early years of the 20th century. That performance will lead to the major work of the program, filling the second half of the concert: Beyond Zero: 1914–1918, a new multimedia work for string quartet and film that Kronos commissioned for the centennial of the outbreak of World War I.

Kronos

Courtesy of Kronos Quartet

Beyond Zero was written by Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov and will be performed with film restored by experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison from extremely rare and badly deteriorated original films of the war.

Read more in Boulder Weekly.

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CU Presents: Kronos Quartet
Death to Kosmische by Nicole Lizée
World premiere of Speak, Time by Yuri Boguinia
Four songs from the time of World War I with David Barsamian
Beyond Zero: 1914–1918 by Aleksandra Vrebalov, with film by Bill Morrison
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8, Macky Auditorium
Tickets