Duke Performances welcomed back to the Duke University campus some very special friends and creative collaborators for a milestone event in their distinguished career. The Kronos Quartet is celebrating 40 years in existence as a groundbreaking ensemble that continues to exert an unprecedented influence on audiences, composers, musicians, and the performing arts in general. As is often the case for artists who perform here, the Triangle area seems to serve as a feeder to or from performances at some of New York City’s iconic venues. On Friday, March 28 the Kronos Quartet will be honored with a 40th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall; but as Aaron Greenwald, executive director of Duke Performances, said in his opening remarks, “Here in Durham, we are always one step ahead of the curve.”

In addition to other superlative attributes, Kronos is also virtually unique in the longevity of its personnel. Violinists David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt have all been with the group since its formation in 1973. Sunny Yang, cello, just joined the group last year and she is the fourth cellist. (Bios of all are here.) Anyone who has seen Kronos before or has one of their CDs will know that their performances are highly eclectic, representing widely disparate cultures, and that there is always something new and different. This concert was no exception, although one might be surprised (but perhaps should not be) at the inclusion of one very un-Kronos-like work at the opening of the second half.

Although Kronos is certainly not now the only modern ensemble to do so, these artists have intentionally obliterated the archaic distinction between “classical” composers and “others,” who tended to occupy a lower rung on the musical aesthetic ladder. The opener was a perfect example as they performed Aheym (Homeward) by Bryce Dessner (b.1976), guitarist for the rock band The National. The title is Yiddish; the music was written to evoke the experiences of emigration to America and the travails of assimilation. It is a beautifully evocative work, simple yet imbued with great passion and pathos. This was written for Kronos and joins the approximately 800 other commissions created by this group. (No, that number is not a misprint).

The place perked up a bit with a brief but revelatory work by Geeshie Wiley, a nearly unknown early 20th century blues artist, in an arrangement by Jacob Garchik. Harrington took the lead while the three others plucked away in a quirky, slightly askew song called “Last Kind Words” that slyly combines sex and war. This and the next piece, “Flow,” by Laurie Anderson, also arranged by Garchik, are works arranged for Kronos and commissioned by the David Harrington Research and Development Fund.

I would imagine that no matter how accomplished and experienced a musician you are, it is quite an anxiety-riddled situation to be the newcomer to an institution like the Kronos Quartet. Well, Sunny Yang had the perfect vehicle to highlight her musical credentials in a stunning performance of “Sim Sholom” by Alter Yechiel Karniol, arranged by Judith Berkson. This was taken from a 1913 recording by the cantor Karniol, who reportedly had such a phenomenal tenor voice that he was constantly being recruited by the Metropolitan Opera but who chose to serve his synagogue instead. Yang’s performance was not only technically astounding, but, more importantly, stylistically impeccable. Apparently, you don’t have to be Jewish to play that way!

Next up was yet another creative coupling between Kronos and Duke Performances as the presenter, in part, commissioned You Know Me From Here by Missy Mazzoli (b.1980). This is a substantial three movement work that, upon first hearing, is quite traditional and has none of the “scary” elements of contemporary music. The second movement, entitled “Everything That Rises Must Converge” (the exact name of a collection of Flannery O’Connor short stories), remarkably evokes the loneliness and separateness we all feel.

For all the hype of Kronos being the original “bad boys – (and girl)” of string quartets, the ensemble is actually rather subdued in the use of electronics and effects. Each musician has controls that can be used to adjust volume, add distortion, and use loops or pre-recorded parts, but that part of the performance is never overwhelming. Scott Fraser was their sound designer and Brian H. Scott, as lighting supervisor, showed off the new high tech lighting capability of the newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium.

Kronos plays Wagner! Really? They started their career playing Mozart and other “safe” music alongside the revolutionary stuff, so it should not be that much of a surprise. So, yet another arrangement made for Kronos, this time by Aleksandra Vrebalov, of Richard Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde. There was some overdubbing to fill in the dense, chromatic writing, but for the most part this arrangement simply lacked the power and emotional wallop of the original orchestral score. After they finished, Harrington, in his laid-back, late night FM radio voice, said that Kronos “is perhaps the only musicians ever to include Wagner and a work by a cantor on the same program,” referring to Wagner’s anti-Semitism. The final work again, written for Kronos – was the sixth string quartet of Philip Glass. I was quite surprised at how much I enjoyed this three-movement work in that I am one of those who find Glass’ work rather predictable and tiresome, unless accompanying a film or other multi-media event. Although this work certainly contained his trademark repeating cells and arpeggios ad infinitum, there was a sense of lyricism and musical development that was quite enchanting and engaging. The technical component was quite high as this was the only time that I’ve seen the Kronos struggling with some passages, and, truth be told, it seemed a bit under-rehearsed.

The very generous triple helping of encores was a perfect microcosm of what Kronos is all about: wildly divergent styles and influences that have no cultural or musical boundaries. An achingly beautiful and meditative “The Beatitudes” by Vladmir Martynov was followed by a Colombian “cowboy” piece, and then the evening ended with the cartoonish “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott.