The program page for Kronos Quartet’s program at the Cleveland Museum of Art on 18 January was typical of their concerts: a daunting list of mostly unfamiliar composers and every work either written or arranged for Kronos (David Harrington and John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; and Jeffrey Zeigler, cello). Only Steve Reich and Laurie Anderson might have been familiar names to most audience members. There were voluminous printed program notes, rendered useless when the auditorium lights were completely dimmed for the concert. But also typical of Kronos, their blend of technical virtuosity, musicality and theatrical presentation made for an arresting two hours on a blustery winter evening in Cleveland.

Kronos Quartet © Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet
© Jay Blakesberg

The major work on the program was Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, which combines pre-recorded sounds and voices with two pre-recorded string quartets along with the amplified live quartet. The work is a remembrance of the terrorist destruction of the New York World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The opening pulse, which sets the tempo for the entire work, is the sound of a land-line telephone left off the hook. There are voices of air traffic controllers, recordings of residents of the WTC neighborhood, police officers, firefighters, and volunteers who took shifts sitting near the bodies until they had been identified and could be buried. Although the performance made a deep emotional impact; WTC 9/11 is less interesting than Reich’s 1988 Different Trains, also written for Kronos. The compositional techniques are similar in both works, but the earlier work is developed at greater length and is ultimately a richer musical experience.

Kronos gave the world premiere of Dan Becker’s Carrying the Past, which also combined pre-recorded music (mostly scratchy 78 rpm popular song and dance recordings) and amplified live string quartet. The live music features ostinati of various types, changing in punctuation with the recorded music. At one point the two violinists mimed the dance tune being played on the recorded track. The meow of a cat appeared toward the end. As a musical reminiscence, it was all harmless fun.

Laurie Anderson’s brief Flow, as arranged by Jacob Garchik, was magical, beginning imperceptibly and continuing with ethereal suspension of time. At the end we were left in silence with projected light patterns on the textured surface of the rear stage platform wall.

Ram Narayan’s Raga Mishra Bhairavi: Alap originated as a solo for the sarangi, a northern Indian bowed string instrument. As transcribed here by Ljova, violist Hank Dutt’s performance of the quietly ecstatic and heavily ornamented melodic line was one of the highlights of the concert. His transcribed sarangi line was supported by drones in the cello, the sitar (played by violinist John Sherba) and a lap-held harmonium (played by violinist David Harrington).

Three arrangements of folk and popular songs from Syria (Omar Souleyman’s “La Sidounak Sayyada”, or “I’ll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You”); the Vietnamese “Luu thuy truong” (“Running Water”); and the Swedish “Tusen Tankar” (”A Thousand Thoughts”) gave respite from the more serious works on the program. The Vietnamese tune was enhanced with a backlit “shadow play” of the four performers projected on the walls of Gartner Auditorium. The theatrical lighting for the show was designed by Laurence Neff.

The final work on the program was ...hold me, neighbor, in this storm... (2007) by the Serbian-American composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. Inspired by the ethnic turbulence and conflict in the Balkans, the work uses vivid pre-recorded sounds of church bells, Islamic calls to prayer, children playing, explosions, lullabies and drinking songs. The live performers also play a large double-headed drum and an ethnic bowed string instrument and stomp their feet, besides playing their classical string instruments. Sometimes the quartet was hugely amplified; at other moments, the electronic enhancement was subtle. (It is no wonder that Brian Mohr, the audio engineer, was given equal billing to the string-playing members of Kronos in the program book. His work played a large role in the fulfillment of the various composers’ wishes.) At times it was a cacophony; at other times the texture thins to reveal the composer’s heartfelt sadness for the ongoing conflict in her homeland. Kronos Quartet’s performance here was convincing, and, as elsewhere in the program, one assumes that it was authoritative.

For an encore, Kronos offered a fun arrangement of the Greek song “Smyrneiko minore” by Marika Papagika.