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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Review: Kronos Quartet deliver a challenging and capitavting performance with their Abu Dhabi debut

Leaping through times, places and genres, Kronos Quartet's Abu Dhabi debut will rank among the most commanding, compelling and contrasting evenings of music most in the audience will ever have experienced.
The Kronos Quartet performed at the Black Box at NYUAD on September 16, 2015. Delores Johnson / The National
The Kronos Quartet performed at the Black Box at NYUAD on September 16, 2015. Delores Johnson / The National

Over the past 40 years Kronos Quartet — the American string ensemble who rank among the most renowned chamber groups in the world — have built a mighty reputation for breaking all the rules. Many would claim a classical string quartet shouldn’t perform to backing tracks of percussion, synths, vocals and elephant noises. They shouldn’t mix Egyptian tango with rock songs, or minimalism with Bollywood soundtracks. They shouldn’t play from behind the curtain and wander onto the stage midway through a performance. Performing in Abu Dhabi for the first time, Kronos Quartet broke all these rules, and it was a singular joy to behold. Hosted for a series of five concerts by The Arts Centre at New York University Abu Dhabi, Kronos will play a total of 40 pieces from 27 different countries, never repeating a work (save encores).

The first performance

Performing two free public concerts on Wednesday (September 16) and one more tonight (September 17), the stage began shrouded in darkness. Sitting alone, Sunny Yang slowly tore guttural, murmured groans from her cello. Little by little she was joined by the sound of more strings, in the distance, behind the stage. One by one the rest of the quartet — violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, and violist Hank Dutt — joined Yang onstage, while the lights gradually swelled and the music built into a trancelike, frenetic cantor.

Twenty minutes later the quartet left the stage, save Yang, who returned to her mournful, solo exorcism. The piece entitled Mugam Sayagi, a brave, compelling composition written for the quartet by Azerbaijan’s Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, was both the evening’s most impressive and challenging moment. Also performed in the first sitting were two topically Middle Eastern works: a traditional Iraqi folk dance, entitled Oh Mother, The Handsome Man Tortures Me, pointedly referencing the Iraq war, and Escaly, an ornate, dramatic composition from Egyptian composer/oud player Hamza El Din.

The first concert closed with a joyous tribute to American minimalist forefather Terry Riley — a close friend of the quartet who recently celebrated his 80th birthday — by performing Good Medicine, described by Harrington as the “concluding piece of his mega-masterpiece”, Salome Dances for Peace.

The second performance

In a thematic bridge, the evening’s second performance opened with a playful arrangement of The Who’s Baba O’Riley — a piece bandleader Pete Townshend wrote under Riley’s spell — which saw the rock staple’s distinctive programmed synthesiser effectively looped live.

There were greater cultural jumps to come. Traditional Greek tango Smyrneiko was a fleeting, romantic joy. Iranian piece Rain, by Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Kayhan Kalhor, built to a spirited climax of stamped feet and chorus shouts. The programme closed as it began, with another brave, brooding, 20-minute work commissioned for the quartet, Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov’s ... Hold me, Neighbour, In The Storm ... A dense, knotty masterpiece moving through moods, mediums and textures — members swapped drums and traditional stringed instruments — which built to a kinetic, cinematic nightmare. It was a fitting end to one of the most commanding, compelling and contrasting evenings of music most in the audience will ever have experienced.

Kronos Quartet and Malian master Fodé Lassana Diabaté unite for Abu Dhabi world premiere

All five of Kronos Quartet’s Abu Dhabi concerts showcased a very special guest, Fodé Lassana Diabaté, the world’s leading player of the balafon, a 22-key xylophone. Drawing from West Africa’s deep-rooted blues and folk forms, the Malian musician has composed an engaging five-part suite for Kronos, and each movement received its world premiere at successive Abu Dhabi concerts, with Diabaté appearing live alongside the quartet. In future Kronos will perform the work without its author, and presumably in its entirety — and only then can a full judgement be made.

The composition is part of Kronos’s Fifty for the Future initiative, which will see the quartet build a new students’ repertoire by commissioning 50 eclectic pieces, from 25 men and 25 women, over the next five years. The goal of the project is, in Harrington’s words, to “introduce a new chapter in the future of string quartet music”. Such a statement doesn’t come without a side order of gravity and hubris — but on the basis of this performance, if any ensemble can lead the way forward into the light of the new, it is Kronos Quartet.

Kronos Quartet’s final performance at NYUAD takes place tonight (Thursday September 17) at 8pm. The performance is full but free standby tickets are likely to be available on the door.

NYUAD’s Inaugural Programme continues with the Polyglot Theatre on October 8. See the full programme here.