“What is this?” asked Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, as he stood onstage at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley in celebration of 40 years of the Kronos Quartet. “Are you listening to this to be cool?” He described his first encounter with the quartet, their 1986 self-titled record, and how it changed his relationship with music forever. It was, as he put it, his “Kronos Quartet moment.”

Kronos Quartet © Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet
© Jay Blakesberg

In the world of contemporary classical music, there are few household names. With more than 800 commissions behind them, Kronos Quartet (David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Sunny Yang) is one of the few, and the group has arguably had a greater impact on the course of new music than any other ensemble.

It is fitting, then, that the concert celebrating four decades of musical innovation began with Terry Riley’s Another Secret eQuation. Riley, a long time Kronos collaborator and towering musical figure in his own right, is unique among composers in his ability to intermingle playfulness with profundity. Another Secret eQuation oscillates between unearthly wails from a children’s chorus and writing that is almost jarring in its comparative simplicity.

The sung text, written by the composer, is lonely yet whimsical, expressing the inherent frustration of a younger generation inheriting the world from their flawed elders. And purposefully or not, Another Secret eQuation contains allusions to the music of George Crumb, both in its message and some if its sonic palette. Crumb, another important Kronos collaborator, composed the piece that inspired the quartet’s formation in the first place: Black Angels.

This coupling of magic with solemnity is a common feature of Riley’s recent work, but it also describes Kronos Quartet’s creative efforts in general as well as the tone of the evening. Not surprising for a birthday party, the works on the first half of the concert all possessed a joyous quality.

But there was also some serious music-making. The second half of the concert was dedicated to Black Angels, Crumb’s elegy on the Vietnam War era. While the postmodern dissonance of Crumb’s music has lost its sharp edge over time, the eerie discomfort it instills brings cause for reflection, meaning Black Angels will remain relevant as long as society has ills to overcome.

In 1970, those ills were perhaps better defined than they are today. But as the piece ends, with its anticlimactic yet powerful fade into silence, the pensive dissatisfaction we are left with is undoubtedly the same as what audiences originally.

A last-minute addition to the program, Jherek Bischoff’s short but sweet A Semiperfect Number came after the Riley and was essentiality two contrasting tunes sewn together – a lively and fun Part One followed by a delicate play of short bowed notes and pizzicato for Part Two. Bischoff is known for writing much of his music on a ukulele, and listening carefully, the quality of that tiny instrument peeks through. Philip Glass’ Orion: China, which followed, was classic Glass. Originally written for the Philip Glass Ensemble and excerpted from the larger work Orion, featuring instrumentalists from around the world, the version performed still features the charming Wu Man on pipa, and was expertly arranged for the quartet by Michael Riesman.

The most recent collaborator with the quartet, Bryce Dessner, also appeared with the ensemble to perform Aheym, the tile work of Kronos Quartet’s most recent recording. Dessner, who is best known as the songwriter and guitarist for the indie-rock band The National, has written a vigorous exploration of personal migration. The sensibility of his writing for string quartet is much the same as in his songs, and this translates into an incredibly interesting work. He has a unique ability among composers of his generation to cross genres with utter ease.

The most intriguing performance of the night, though, was presented as a preview of Kronos Quartet’s next project: a collaboration with the Malian group Trio da Kali. The combined forces of Kronos and the trio (Fodé Lassana Diabaté, Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté, and Mamadou Kouyaté) delivered an impassioned performance of a love song from Kita, Western Mali that was part Afropop, part quartet, part improvisational jazz. It was a short interlude, but it gave a glimpse of some excitement to come.

One interesting side-effect of Kronos Quartet’s mission of presenting new music is that, while there is no doubt about each member’s musicianship, the focus of their concerts is shifted from their performance to the music itself. It is this quality that makes all those “Kronos Quartet moments” possible. Most, if not all, avid listeners of new music have one. With a little luck, we’ll be treated to decades more of new discoveries and new musical revelations.

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