Music review: Kronos Quartet’s ‘America Program’

The Kronos Quartet’s “America Program” at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Sunday night did a lot more than just present American music. It offered some thoughtful perspectives on what it means to be American — without lecturing, without analysis, simply through music. It may have been the best match of idea and execution I’ve heard from Kronos, ever.

Kronos, of course, is the original rock band of string quartets. It plays contemporary music and makes it feel like pop, down to the exemplary production values of Sunday’s concert: The lighting design gently supported the music with a dash of color, a single projected image or a gesture as simple as intensifying the beam of a spotlight at the moment when Johnston’s fourth quartet, “Amazing Grace,” entered its coda.

But I’ve heard Kronos plenty of times in the past, and I’ve never been quite so pleased with the experience. David Harrington, the violinist who founded the group in 1973 and its lone original member, has a shaggy, slightly hoarse way with the violin that I’ve been critical of. On Sunday, though, this rough touch gave the program a homespun air that was eminently appropriate.

The music was contemporary, but the America that it depicted was not. This concert was not about nationalism but iconography. Its America was a can-do, eager place: the America of Reginald Marsh, of WPA murals, of hobos crossing the country on trains — literally depicted in the final piece, Harry Partch’s “U.S. Highball: A Musical Account of Slim’s Transcontinental Hobo Trip.”

It started with Johnston’s “Amazing Grace,” which to my ear evoked various moments of the American experience through many kinds of music, all centering on the familiar hymn tune. It began with a busy industriousness, like a barn-raising, with the four instruments actively working away at their parts, passing the theme around without letting it distract any of them from the task at hand, letting their individual voices intersect without compromising individual integrity. The sounds ultimately streamlined into metallic, Jet Age swoops before finally, at the very end, cycling back to a brief evocation of the beginning.

Missy Mazzoli’s “Harp and Altar” also went back to an earlier America, channeling an excerpt of Hart Crane’s poem “The Bridge: To the Brooklyn Bridge,” with taped vocals by singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane (both Mazzoli and Kahane are hot properties among New York’s young musicians) emerging from the busy choir of strings.

Steve Reich’s “WTC 9/11,” which Kronos gave its world premiere last month, treats a more recent past. Reich is a composer who follows his interests doggedly, one step at a time, to new places; this piece combined his signature juxtaposition of taped and live instruments to the ma­nipu­la­tion of the spoken word, in a sober memorial, as sad and brief as the catastrophe of Sept. 11 itself and as compact as a gravestone. Reich worked with the taped voices of eyewitnesses, from the air traffic controllers who first noticed a plane heading in the wrong direction — the spaces between their words extended in a static blur over a repeating, jagged alarm tone from the violins — to the people who followed Jewish tradition by sitting Shmira for months over the unburied remains of victims. The repetition of the taped words, echoed in music by the strings, becomes a portrayal of the act of remembering: the sound of people trying to get their testimony right, creating a tale that will be told again.

After the break came voices of the dead: “Structures,” a tough, beautiful piece by Morton Feldman, with individual notes and chords suspended sweet and full and translucent as green grapes (“It should sound like Schubert!” Harrington told the audience Feldman said), and Partch’s long hobo piece, arranged by Johnston. The composer and singer David Barron sports a hobo-like fuzzy gray beard and performed the lead quite brilliantly, while the strings offered energetic onomatopoeia. This is quintessential American mythmaking, the narrative of a hobo making his way to Chicago; it was doubtless my own limitation that my lack of interest in the story led to my finding this putative masterpiece slightly tedious. The piece, however, was a perfect cap to the theme of this eminently worthwhile evening.

The Kronos Quartet will perform public readings of works by student composers at the University of Maryland at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center on Tuesday.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.

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