IOWA CITY — An evening with the Kronos Quartet is a mind-bending experience.
The celebrated San Francisco string ensemble turns music on its ear, upside down and sideways, often layering otherworldly upper stratosphere sounds over cello drones or plunging the ocean depths with something akin to whale song.
If you close your eyes, you might not even realize you’re hearing two violins, viola and cello. But this is eyes-wide-open music, dripping with drama and visual impact as the four men throw their entire beings into music that challenges listeners to expand, release and enjoy the wild ride.
Thursday night’s concert (10/18/12) was the signature event for the Englert Theatre’s month-long centennial celebration.
“It’s so nice to be back in Iowa City after 10 years,” founder and violinst David Harrington told the nearly full house. “We think of Iowa City as the liberal heart of America. Don’t forget to vote.”
The love affair goes both ways. Every single song — seven programmed and two encores — drew cheers from the crowd. The couple seated next to me, however, left after intermission. I suspect they didn’t realize and embrace the sonic assault of the concert’s first half. The second half, however, led off with a lush arrangement of Wagner’s Prelude from “Tristan und Isolde.”
This is an ensemble that never intended to create comfort. All four members have embarked on a mission of “fearless exploration” while expanding string quartet repertoire. Both aims have been met, as they have commissioned more than 750 new works.
Most of the pieces on the Englert program were composed specifically for Kronos; others were arranged for the quartet.
From the first frenetic strokes of “Aheym (Homeward)” by Bryce Dessner, we knew the evening was going to be unsettling and unusual, but also very special. This composition invokes the composer’s heritage, capturing the feelings of flight and passage his Jewish ancestors experienced coming to American from Russia and Poland. Various themes and techniques explore a jumble of emotions, from intense movement to disjointed syncopation to fleeting traces of melodious turns and lightly skipping plucking of the strings, before whirling into a frenzy and an abrupt ending.
For two-and-a-half hours, we traveled through time and space to musical landings in India and Europe, weaving threads of folk music and traditions through discordant experimental tapestries. Others, like the ethereal, butterfly-inspired “Clouded Yellow” and “A Thousand Thoughts” from Sweden, gave us moments of sheer loveliness. “Death to Kosmische” explored the realm of ‘60s and ‘70s German electronica, evoking a sophisticated, trippy “Lost in Space” or “Edward Scissorhands” haunting.
Closing the program with the intensely thrilling “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm …” brought everyone instantly to their feet, shouting for more, which the ensemble obliged with multiple encores. But first, this haunting explosion of power rooted in the Balkans strife, infused with gypsy dances, drum beats, chimes, chanting and foot stomps, punctuated by low, slow explosions.
This evening of high emotion, filled with the depth and breadth a soul can reach, was a wonderful way to propel the Englert into its next century.
To see the full lineup for the historic venue’s celebration, go to Englert.org