October 12, 2009
At the ensemble's latest San Francisco concert on Friday night (a benefit for the 40th anniversary of stalwart local classical music presenter Old First Concerts), at least half of the audience, by my estimation, was under 40 and quite ethnically diverse. Most of them were hipsterish in style. The girls wore vintage dresses and the guys, skinny jeans, plaid shirts, waistcoats and trainers (that's vests and sneakers to US readers.)
How does Kronos do it? I think it's the group's unflinching combination of constant exploration, fearless use of electronic and other recorded sounds and global outlook. Brand plays a key role too. The fact that the ensemble has recorded music for such culty films as 21 Grams and Requiem for a Dream and regularly collaborates with pop artists such as Sigur Ros and the Nine Inch Nails helps its image among the younger crowd.
Kronos' sound is constantly arresting. At intermission, the two young women sitting behind me were in ecstasies about what they had just heard, a freewheeling program of short works with a Middle Eastern outlook written by composers from that part of the world as well as elsewhere. They also chatted excitedly about such things as the way in which the players had swatted the air during selections from The Dead Man, John Zorn's death rattle of an homage to Robert Mapplethorpe, creating whooshing noises that were at once threatening and funny. Like Zorn, most of the scribes on the evening's roster, like the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh and the late Nubian composer Hamza El Din, had been commissioned specially to write for the group. Knowing that Kronos can play anything, they went all out in terms of stretching the stringed instruments to their limits. Both young and old audiences in the house on Friday night seemed to revel in Kronos' endless spirit of invention.
Of course, being the big brand in town has its downsides for the chamber music community as a whole. Kronos has such a strong reputation and growing following among the 20s and 30s hipster crowd, that people, especially young people, tend to think of the group as the only string quartet in town. This is a shame as there are many other high-class ensembles working in the Bay Area such as the Alexander Cypress quartets. I hear that it's hard for these groups to attract younger audiences with Kronos stealing all the limelight.