There’s something to be said for a savvy business plan. Flutist and International Contemporary Ensemble founder Claire Chase, for example, has created a brilliant engine for ongoing performance premieres – and, not incidentally, fundraising – with her 24-year commissioning project Density 2036. Likewise, Kronos Quartet’s 50 for the Future, launched in 2015 and concluding this year, is a laudable effort that commissions composers while expanding their own repertoire. Kronos has made the scores available for download and performance free of charge, extending the benefits to quartets around the world. The Kronos benevolence also extends to Kaufman Music Center's Special Music School, the center's public school that teaches music as a core subject, and Face the Music, their teen new-music program.

Kronos Quartet
© Jay Blakesberg

Those efforts were in evidence at the Quartet’s concert at Merkin Hall at Kaufman Music Center just north of Lincoln Center in Manhattan. All of the pieces performed in the long and varied program were from the 50 for the Future book, including two that featured student musicians. It would no doubt be a daunting prospect for a student string quartet to share a stage with Kronos, but the Special Music School Quartet did just that, opening the evening with Charlton Singleton’s Testimony and a notably beautiful tone from 15-year-old Ana Isabela España’s violin.

Kronos, though, played the bulk of the program. Peni Candra Rini’s Maduswara, arranged by Jacob Garchik, was an utterly charming piece that teased at exotica. A prerecorded track with electronic frogs and crickets called Martin Denny to mind. Dissonant motifs and a lovely passage evoking gentle rain, small drums and gongs added to the scene. Aruna Narayan’s Mishra Pilu (arranged by Reena Esmail) likewise used an evocative backing track: in this case a shruti box supporting a round robin of melody lines set in a raga format, with some convincingly tabla-like percussion tapped out by Sunny Yang on her cello.

Kronos Quartet with student musicians during the sound check
© courtesy of Montclair State University

On the complexity tip, Inti Figgis-Vizueta’s branching patterns (which, like Rini and Narayan’s pieces, was receiving its premiere) was a brain-tingling structure, impressively fracturing into shards of melody and rich harmonies. Sky Macklay’s enthralling Vertebrae cast suspenseful false-harmonic arpeggios against frenetic mismatched lines, finding unison only at the end. 

With Little Black Book, Intelligent Dance Music producer Jlin kept a trace of the heavy beats she usually works with by way of a large bass drum and pedal, which Yang was tasked with playing. Little Black Book didn’t strongly reflect Jlin’s electronic music, although parallels were there, but it was one of the most exciting pieces on the program. Jlin wasn’t the only composer from outside the concert music realm. Before Kronos took the stage, the Kodak Quartet played Séraphîta by Trey Spruance, best known as a member of the rock bands Mr. Bungle and Secret Chiefs 3.

To call Philip Glass’s music "cinematic" would be nothing profound given his extensive work for film, and to suggest it was a closing theme for an imaginary credit roll would seem dismissive. His Quartet Satz, also a 50 for the Future commission, was dramatic and expansive, with no undue sentiment afforded by the opportunity given to the 16 student musicians who joined Kronos in a bass-less string orchestra. The piece, expanded from its original quartet version, made for a fitting finale. 

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