in performance: kronos quartet

Kronos Quartet. From left: Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt, David Harrington and John Sherba. Photo by Jay Blakesberg

The full intent behind Tuesday evening’s Kronos Quartet performance at Transylvania University’s Haggin Auditorium was best expressed onstage by words as opposed to music.

Near the conclusion of Zachary James Watkins’ “Peace Be Till,” the recorded voice of Clarence Jones, speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr., divulged the cue given for the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. “These people don’t know it,” Jones recalled being told by King, “but they’re about to go to church.”

That was, in essence, what Kronos did at Transy. Of the numerous Kentucky concerts presented by the Grammy-winning, San Francisco-based quartet over the past three decades, this was among their most spiritually rich and approachable. In fact, outside of a few blinks of dissonance during “Peace Be Till,” the performance steered away from the greater abstractions that often pepper a Kronos outing. In its place was a meditative accessibility drawn from a repertoire heavy on socially conscious works from, or inspired by, the Civil Rights Era South. But the program by no means remained anchored there.

With Paul Wiancko subbing for regular Kronos cellist (and new mom) Sunny Yang, the ensemble opened the evening with a trip to Egypt by way of Islam Chipsy’s “Zaghlala.” Starting as something of an Eastern hoedown, the piece placed violist Hank Dutt on dumbek, a Middle Eastern hand drum, although the full group echoed the tune’s densely percussive feel.

Similarly, the performance concluded with Wu Man’s adaptation of “Silk and Bamboo,” a traditional Asian melody where Dutt again sat out on strings by adding to the work’s lightly exotic feel on woodblock and Chinese gong.

What came between all this, outside of striking performances of new works by Bryce Dessner of The National (“Le Bois,” which Kronos premiered three nights earlier at Carnegie Hall) and Philip Glass (the gentle, arpeggio-rich “Quartet Satz”), the program set up shop within social divides of the ‘60s era South.

For the Abel Meeropol-penned, Billie Holiday-popularized “Strange Fruit,” David Harrington’s violin lines transformed the tune’s plaintive, primary melody into an elongated cry. The resulting ensemble sound lifted itself into the air at the song’s conclusion with a slow fade worthy of a séance.

While not exactly Southern in design, the Gershwin standard “Summertime” retained a heavy dose of blues elegance by being modeled more after Janis Joplin’s 1968 psychedelic version with Big Brother and the Holding Company than the song’s “Porgy and Bess” beginnings. But the evening’s emotive highpoint came with two brief back-to-back compositions that served as the thrust of the concert’s second set.

On John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” the quartet played as an elegiac whole, producing a hymn-like feel that underscored the composition’s inescapable sadness (Coltrane wrote the piece in response to the 1963 church bombing that killed four African-American girls in Birmingham).

To counteract such tragedy, the focus then went to Dutt. He carried Antonio Haskell’s “God Shall Wipe Away All Tears” (a song cut by Mahalia Jackson at the onset of her recording career) with a viola lead of heartbreaking subtlety and grace. The capacity audience rightly awarded him an ovation.

How do you lighten the mood, especially considering the lengthy “Peace Be Till” followed this one-two punch? You serve up an encore of “Orange Blossom Special” with violinist John Sherba giving the tune enough of an exotic flair and drive to make it sound like a Romanian folk adventure.

That was the church service Kronos took Transy to on Tuesday – a program of humanity and grace that summoned the spirits of the South as readily as it criss-crossed the rest of the globe.

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