Review: Kronos Quartet offers up some prime Canadian content in musical tour around the world

The Kronos Quartet played two Canadian pieces during their show at Music & Beyond. Photo: Jay Blakeberg

Nobody is a prophet in their own land, so the saying goes. It’s one thing for Canadians to perform music by Canadian composers. It’s de rigueur. It’s quite another thing when international ensembles promote Canadian contemporary music by choice. The customary and parochial acquires a certain worldly panache.

Music by Canadian women shone in the Kronos Quartet’s concert at Music and Beyond Wednesday night. The performance featured several works commissioned for the quartet’s ambitious, generous 50 for the Future project.

Launched last year, 50 for the Future will eventually see the creation of new compositions by 25 women and 25 men from around the world and working in different musical styles. What makes this endeavour exceptional is that Kronos is making all the music — recordings and scores — available for free on its website.

Kronos opened with Kule Kule by Congolese group Konono No. 1. The catchy, Afro-poppy tune was supplemented by recorded beats and epitomized the globalized cool that Kronos has made its trademark. In Dadra in Raga Bhairavi, by violinist N. Rajam, the players mimicked florid, classical Indian vocal lines over a recorded drone, as cellist Sunny Yang drummed tabla-like rhythms on her instrument.

Canadians Nicole Lizée and Tanya Tagaq were both invited to contribute works to 50 for the Future. Another Living Soul is Lizée at her playful best, involving a toybox full of wacky instruments and creative effects, like the neon pool noodles that produced ghostly tones when whipped around. The musicians bowed with plastic slide whistle contraptions, rang bells with their feet, and stamped the ground.

Tagaq’s astonishing Sivunittinni transposes traditional Inuit throat singing for string quartet. The result sounded like whales on a runaway train, like undersea currents, like sighs from the spirit world, like nothing you’ve ever heard.

Polish composer Aleksander Kosciow’s gothic, glacial Hilathi was a return to more conventional contemporary writing before the first half ended with Kronos rocking out on an arrangement of the Who’s Baba O’Riley.

After a globe-trotting first half, the quartet focused on American music. Charles Mingus’ epic Children’s Hour of Dream was followed by Janis Joplin’s Summer of Love take on Summertime. Rhiannon Giddens’ At the Purchaser’s Option showcased a hardbitten style best described as ‘New Appalachian’.

The quartet paid Ottawa the ultimate compliment of premiering its new arrangement of House of the Rising Sun here. The concert ended with the spiritual, mathematical final movement from Salome Dances for Peace, by influential American minimalist and longtime Kronos collaborator Terry Riley.

The quartet performed two encores. Silk and Bamboo, written for Kronos by pipa virtuoso Wu Man, showed off the members’ chameleon versatility, with violist Hank Dutt playing different Chinese percussion instruments. The ensemble chose a lush, Ellington-esque arrangement of Strange Fruit to close.

Kronos concerts sell out all over the world, but the audience at Dominion Chalmers was only modest. Perhaps Canada 150 fatigue is to blame.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.