The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kronos Quartet plays music from travel ban countries as political protest, but lets its Western roots take over

The mesmerizing Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat sings with the Kronos Quartet in an undated picture; the five musicians reprised the collaboration in D.C. on Saturday night.
The mesmerizing Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat sings with the Kronos Quartet in an undated picture; the five musicians reprised the collaboration in D.C. on Saturday night. (Evan Neff)
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It was a gesture of political protest: On Saturday night, the Kronos Quartet played the music of composers from countries named in President Trump’s original travel ban at the historic synagogue at Sixth and I.

Kronos is the 45-year-old quartet known as one of the earliest classical groups to take a rock-band-like approach, playing music mainly by living composers and often in response to current events in a quest to bring classical music more securely into today’s world. So this Washington Performing Arts concert — which was not limited only to ban-affected countries, but also included music by a few other Muslim artists — was not at all a departure. Indeed, one of its problems was that it didn’t depart far enough.

The first piece, “Mugam Sayagi” by the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, who wrote it for Kronos in 2003, began in darkness, with the cellist Sunny Yang intoning a throaty solo line. It was a pregnant beginning, opening up a world of possibilities, including the question of what might happen next. Then the lights came up and revealed the three other players, and we were back in the familiar world of Western concert music, with four people playing on a stage; we weren’t, after all, traveling as far as we thought. (This is no diss on Ali-Zadeh’s piece, itself an eloquent travelogue in several sections, building to impassioned group playing including a small gong and taking refuge in a lyrical quiet movement for violin before fading back out into the night of the cello.)

The resulting evening was an Arabic/African/Middle Eastern panorama, with color and exotic scales shaped and restrained by the corset of Western instrumentation and Western presentation. We’ve come a long way from Mozart’s “Turkish” interpolations or the “orientalism” of 19th-century France — or have we?

This concert was presented in a spirit of collaboration and admiration, and culminated in a set of five songs (plus an encore) by the remarkable Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat, her voice dusky and thrilling, her still body and stylized hand gestures underlining the emotional immediacy of the singing. (A new recording that Vahdat and her sister Marjan made with Kronos, “Placeless,” will be released later this month.)

Yet the concert also represented an aestheticization, at best, of a range of different traditions, smoothing over their differences in the general sameness of framing. In each piece, the immediacy of folk or pop tradition was reined in by the arrangements for four Western instruments. The most satisfying pieces were those written specifically for the quartet, like Hamza El Din’s resigned, nostalgic, eloquent “Escalay (The Water Wheel),” circling in patient musical eddies to document a bygone world. Between each piece, the lights faded to black while taped ambient noises — calls to prayer, voices on the street — rose to fill the silence.

It’s the job of the players to take us somewhere, of course. In my experience, Kronos’s concerts tend to blend appealing earnestness and loose, not to say sloppy, playing; Saturday was no exception. The result was evocative rather than tightly focused, though the players were laudably willing to take risks, notably by taking up percussion instruments. The violist, Hank Dutt, played a gong, and second violinist John Sherba took up a drum starting in Ali-Zadeh’s piece, and various combinations of percussion spiced the ensuing pieces, such as the vibrant “Zaghlala” by Cairo-based Islam Chipsy, until David Harrington, the group’s founder and first violin, took up a kitchen whisk and wooden spatula and whacked a kitchen tray as part of the impromptu percussion section backing up Yang’s tremulously warbling muted cello in “Ya Mun Dakhal Bahr al-Hawa (Hey, Who Enters the Sea of Passion?)” by Yemeni singer Fatimah Al-Zaelaeyah.

On the one hand, the evening offered refreshing exposure to sounds that were quite possibly new to many in the packed and enthusiastic auditorium. On the other, this message of solidarity also reinforced a sense of otherness: a sense of hearing things in translation, of something missed along the way. It was notable that a program about communication and cooperation should have been presented in such polished silence, one piece played after the other with only the taped sounds in between. Not until the four players shouted lustily at the end of the lively “La Sidounak Sayyada,” an arrangement of a number by the Syrian pop singer Omar Souleyman, did the audience feel liberated to break into heartfelt applause.

However, Vahdat’s tour de force conclusion cut through the fabric of decorum implied by the instrumental accompaniment, and seared the heart. And at a time when so many classical ensembles still seem timid about experimenting with programming outside the classical canon, it is reassuring to see Kronos continuing to forge its own path, bringing audiences along with it.

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