REVIEW / CONCERT
MY LAI/AN EVENING WITH KRONOS QUARTET
Kronos Quartet, Rinde Eckert (tenor), Van-Anh Vanessa Vo (Vietnamese traditional instruments)
Last Thursday / Last Saturday
American string quartet Kronos Quartet have been a leading light in contemporary classical music for more than 40 years. In the first of these two concerts reviewed, they were part of the production of My Lai, a monodrama based on the infamous 1968 massacre of Vietnamese villagers by American soldiers at My Lai.
Performed with tenor Rinde Eckert and Vietnamese multi-instrumentalist Van-Anh Vanessa Vo and with the backing of video projection on sheer curtains and pre- recorded soundtracks, the 75- minute work tells of helicopter pilot warrant officer Hugh Thompson's efforts to stop the slaughter and his efforts to see that the truth behind the massacre was made known.
Stanford faculty composer Jonathan Berger's mainly atonal songs drew on Eckert's full tenor range and beyond, while novelist Harriet Scott Chessman's libretto retold Thompson's experience at My Lai, where he witnessed the wanton killing of villagers. So outraged was he by the actions of his fellow soldiers that, at one point, he placed his helicopter between the American soldiers and the villagers, ordering his crew to fire at their fellow soldiers if needed.
Kronos and Vo's role for the evening was primarily in support of Eckert's excellent singing and acting. His convincing performance spanned Thompson's recollection of the massacre and his post-event interrogation, which took the form of a bizarre television game show re-enacting his choices and actions.
For all the strong performances by Eckert, Kronos and Vo, Chessman's libretto never plumbed the depths of horror the storyline had to offer. This was left to Vo's haunting opening vocal solo and the playing of the single-stringed dan bau (Vietnamese monochord) throughout the evening to fully express the pain and sorrow of this tragedy.
My Lai provided just a foretaste to last Saturday's far more compelling An Evening With Kronos Quartet, a real treat to long-time Kronos fans and neophytes alike.
Having 11 works on the programme might seem excessive, but the quartet's repertoire is expansive. Over the decades, many top contemporary composers have written music for the quartet, and the carefully selected sets of pieces provided a whirlwind tour of the breadth and depth of music in the genre of "contemporary string quartet" that Kronos have defined.
The quartet use more than violin, viola and cello in concert. Every instrument was mic'd up for electronic reinforcement and there was generous use of digital samples, recorded tracks and even novel musical toys such as a pair of children's whistling tubes as well as action gestures by the audience. Just about every possible string technique was used in concert - ricochet, glissandi, chopping, the use of toys as bows, bowing high up the fingerboard and much more - not just as gimmicks, but also as meaningful elements in the music.
Four of the works were from Fifty For The Future, their educational project that will create a canon of 50 new string quartet works, a legacy for future generations of string quartets. The scores are freely available to download and, given the quality of the pieces performed, the project will be a huge gift to the music world.
For long-time fans of the string quartet, of which there were clearly many present, it was the purely acoustic pieces that were most memorable.
The late morning raga of N. Rajam, arranged by Reena Esmail, Swedish composer Karin Rehnqvist's The Riddle and the exquisitely ethereal Flow by Lauri Anderson were potent reminders that behind the superb stage production, imaginative compositional techniques and the sensitive mixing of media into the programme, at the heart of Kronos Quartet is world-class string quartet playing.