Kronos Festival moves beyond borders
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Genre-crossing, border-lifting, barnstorming Kronos Quartet is well into middle age now, morphing over the years from progressive string quartet to internationally recognized arts institution. They are too busy evolving to take much note of the passing decades themselves. Judging from high-energy concerts in the recent Kronos Festival 2018 at SFJAZZ Center, their adventurous career still moves vigorously to the future.
The "fourth annual hometown festival" took place over three days, highlighting the group's mission with world premieres, the selection of multi-instrumentalist David Coulter (he plays musical saw!) as artist-in-residence, and exciting appearances by international and local guest artists.
Kronos makes diversity look as easy as it ought to be. Colleagues, prominently represented by women, and compositions ranging from new takes on traditional music to modern jazz, pop and art rock created an exhilarating showcase for a rich slate of concerts.
Kronos' artistic director, founder and violinist David Harrington called Festival 2018 "a giant leap for our work." Threading the Quartet's innovative open-access education initiative "Fifty for the Future," which commissions, and distributes for free, a learning library of contemporary repertoire throughout the series, proved his commitment.
"Deepening relationships" with colleagues, and "celebrating possibilities" for discovery, are really nothing new for Kronos. They have been taking risks for as long as I can remember. At the heart of the presentations, Harrington, John Sherba (violin), Hank Dutt (viola) and Sunny Yang (cello) surrounded themselves with new and old friends.
On opening night, Egyptian electro-chaabi pioneer Islam Chipsy set the tone and made his Kronos debut with his own "Zaghlala (Blurred vision caused by strong light hitting the eyes)," composed for "Fifty for the Future."
"Pallavi," another piece written for the initiative, by tabla player Zakir Hussain, was given a World Premiere performance.
American musical group CocoRosie, formed by sisters Bianca "Coco" and Sierra "Rosie" Casady in Paris in 2003, presented "Songs" written for Kronos, World Premieres. The capacity crowd was intrigued by their dreamlike quality and the striking opera- and blues-inflected vocals.
John Coltrane's "Alabama" (arr. Jacob Garchik) set the stage for David Coulter's astonishing solo in saxophonist Ralph Carney's "Lament for Charleston" (arr. Danny Clay). Filled with pathos and anger over the killing of nine at a church in 2015, the dirge was stirring. Played with a bow, the musical saw has a strange and beautiful sound. Coulter added drama with scratchy percussive effects.
Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat closed with an exquisite collection of songs arranged by Sahba Aminikia, a song arranged by her husband Atabak Elyasi, and a Kurdish song for an encore. Vahdat's flawless delivery, marked by pure tone, subtle use of vibrato, and dusky sensuality, was a revelation. Her first appearance with Kronos was at last year's festival. Her return visit was triumphant. A line from "My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless" by classical Persian poet Rumi says, "I am neither Christian nor a Jew, I am no pagan, no muslim." It captures Vahdat's transcendent artistry and the power of her music to erase boundaries.
The second Festival concert further illustrated Kronos' ceaseless exploration of world music, but in a generally lighter way. Coulter was back for more "sawing," in an engaging suite drawn from Jack Nitzsche's music for "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (arr. Garchik).
A special appearance by the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts' Dragon String Quartet with young performers Lucy Nelligan, Ben Hudak, violins; Kana Luzmoor, viola; and Isabelle Fromm, cello, had everyone beaming ear-to-ear. They were joined by Fode Lassana Diabate, virtuoso balafon (22-key xylophone) player from Mali, in his composition written for "The Kronos Learning Repertoire," "Sunjata's Time."
Off-the-wall, but perfectly in tune with today, self-described "post-Mexican composer-performer-visual artist" Guillermo Galindo's "Remote Control" received its World Premiere as part of "Fifty for the Future." Galindo told the amused crowd to take out their mobiles, fire them up, and set the volume to high as they programmed saved videos and one of his own. Kronos added instrumental support when everyone hit play. The results were actually kind of magical: inconsequential, but ingeniously inspired.
Singer-songwriter Jolie Holland brought the first half to a satisfying close with a set of two original numbers (arranged for Kronos by Garchik) framing Randy Newman's superb "Louisiana, 1927." Holland's style blends a country-folk vibe with art-song poetry. She set toes to tapping even as she evoked a wistful mood. Harrington met her when she was working in SF at a restaurant near the Kronos' business office. His instincts paid off well.
The rest of the night was given to Malian griot ensemble Trio Da Kali, performing music from the recording "Ladilikan" on World Circuit, which joined them with Kronos back in 2017 to great acclaim. Trio Da Kali musical director Fode Lassana Diabate got spontaneous applause for his steaming balafon solos. Mamadou Kouyate contributed exciting drive on bass ngoni, and the blending with string quartet added plush support for vocalist Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate.
Channeling the majesty of Mahalia Jackson within her own seductive range, La Diabate cheerfully personifies the sheer joy of music and a brave new world without borders. Come to think of it, Kronos Quartet does, too.