Commissioned in part by the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Kronos Quartet, the East Coast premiere of Philip Glass’s String Quartet No. 6 on Thursday in College Park offered an opportunity to assess how both musical giants have grown over the decades.
Striving against his early minimalist label, Glass is keen on establishing a classical base to his complex work, bringing a muscular tone that cuts deep.
Yet his almost mathematical approach in the three-movement piece, made familiar from his success in film and stage, was in many ways the most traditional of the works presented by a quartet still eager to push for experimentalism.
That showed mostly in the rest of the well-balanced performance at the University of Maryland, which featured an embarrassment of riches from David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt and newcomer Sunny Yang.
The sonic boom of John Oswald’s 1990 “Spectre” set the stage. They began by sounding as if they were tuning but then created a drone sound, giving way to prerecorded Kronos performances that were multiplied up to 1,000 times at their loudest. As the recording played, strobe lights froze the musicians miming their performance.
It was followed by a pair of marvelous adaptations of old recordings, one an old blues record, Geeshie Wiley’s “Last Kind Words”; the other, Alter Yechiel Karinol’s “Sim Sholom,” Judith Berkson’s arrangement of a cantor’s rangy song, spotlighting Yang on cello.
The second half of the program was divided between the dissonant but assured work of Yuri Boguinia, described as the youngest composer to ever write a new piece for Kronos, and the delightful mix of spoken word and musical counterpoint from Pamela Z, “And the Movement of the Tongue.”
To wrap up the night’s celebratory versatility, the encores careened from Raymond Scott’s zippy “Powerhouse” to a Colombian cowboy tune.
“Forty more years!” someone shouted.
Catlin is a freelance writer.