Kronos Quartet, Wu Man, Post-Classical Ensemble, Moscow State orchestra

Monday, February 15, 2010

A surprisingly large crowd braved the aftermath of the double snowstorm (and traffic tie-ups) to hear the Kronos Quartet and pipa virtuoso Wu Man on Friday night at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center.

The pair of works on the program provided a satisfying one-two punch of Chinese culture through music -- one a haunting ritual, the other a delightful romp.

Tan Dun's "Ghost Opera" is rooted in ancient exorcism plays, but that's merely a jumping-off point. Snippets of Shakespearean monologue and riffs of Bach intersected with a Chinese lullaby and sounds from natural elements: Musicians splashed water at illuminated basins, clacked stones together and rustled the suspended swath of paper that bisected the stage diagonally.

Amid the swirl of mainly Asian sonorities were lovely, momentary solos from Wu Man, bending notes delicately on her pipa (lute), and from Hank Dutt's lustrous viola.

A taped, industrial soundscape, during intermission, morphed into "A Chinese Home," a new piece by Kronos frontman David Harrington, Wu Man and director Chen Shi-Zheng.

Inspired by an 18th-century Anhui province house, the 50-minute work is a travelogue of Chinese history, complete with costume changes, visual projections and props.

Beginning with 19th-century mountain dances, the piece advanced to 1930s Shanghai, with its jazzy nightclub music, tempered by disturbing images of the Sino-Japanese war. From there, it was on to relentlessly cheery songs from Mao Zedong's reign, backdropped with a propaganda movie.

Finally, contemporary China spilled out in cacophony. Wu Man unleashed a hurricane of heavy metal shredding on an electric pipa, while Kronos deployed an army of wind-up, Chinese-made toys, eerily patroling a darkened stage.

These conceptual, cross-cultural moments are Kronos's lifeblood. That they also contain humor is all the better.

-- Tom Huizenga

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