If Duke Performances were to continue to present a dizzying array of world-class artists of nearly every musical, theatrical and choreographic genre and eclectic programming that is at least the equal of any arts organization in the world, that by itself would be quite extraordinary. But they go way above and beyond that by forging long-term relationships with the performers, sharing them with the community and commissioning new works. The appearance of the world-renowned Kronos Quartet at Duke University during this entire weekend is an example of all of the above.

The stats on Kronos are quite astounding: since forming in 1973 they have released more than 45 recordings, commissioned at least 650 works, performed thousands of concerts and nearly single-handedly created a sea change of what a string quartet is and what it can do. Despite this, and their mainstream acceptance, the audience at Page Auditorium was of a quite different age and character from that at a “normal” string quartet concert. The playing members of Kronos are David Harrington, first violin, John Sherba, second violin, Hank Dutt, viola and Jeffrey Ziegler, cello. I described them as “playing” because lighting designer Laurence Neff and audio engineer Brian Mohr are just as integral to the Kronos experience.

Kronos has a nearly bottomless vault of material to choose from and we were quite fortunate to hear them perform works from quite early in their career all the way to a world premiere. They began with a beguiling arrangement of “Amazing Grace” by Ben Johnston, a devotee of Harry Partch, instrument inventor and designer of the 43-note scale. This work, variations on one of the most recognizable tunes, is a transfixing experience that takes a simple melody and slowly morphs it into one of great pitch and rhythmic complexity. 

A Kronos Quartet performance is an unending fountain of surprise and invention, but even they may have peaked early on with the second work of the evening: “Cat O’Nine Tails (Tex Avery Directs the Marquis de Sade)” written by John Zorn. With absolutely no disrespect meant, this is “cartoon” music at its best and was created as homage to Carl Stallings, composer for the great Tex Avery Warner Bros. cartoons, who composed at the rate of one score per week for 22 years! In this 15 minute work, there are 51 distinct moments each coming at you at lightning speed and played with surgical precision. This was great fun and transported you back to carefree Saturday mornings in front of a big, clunky TV that received about 3-4 channels.

Maria Schneider is a well-known and accomplished composer whose career has mostly taken place in the realm of large-scale jazz ensembles. This first string quartet was commissioned by Duke Performances/Duke University for the Kronos Quartet and we heard its world premiere tonight. With this being her first foray into string quartet writing, Schneider was disarmingly honest in saying that “…I didn’t fully realize that I’d feel so disoriented. In the context of the string quartet, I felt stripped of all my security blankets and stranded way beyond my comfort zone.” Her prescient words became apparent the longer this three movement work went on. The undercurrent of most of the work was various forms of Spanish or Latin music, mostly flamenco and tango. The first movement sounded like a retread of Astor Piazzolla’s music that felt stuck in the mud, and the second movement even had tinges of Rodrigo. It was not until the final movement where you sensed some energy and confidence in the writing. Overall, it sounded just way too cautious, guarded and unnecessarily respectful to the idea of the string quartet as the grand old dame of classical music.

The second half featured several works from their recent Nonesuch release Floodplain, but it was a simple Scandinavian folk song that was perhaps the most emotive of the entire evening. It was Kronos’ own arrangement of “Tusen Tankar,” a haunting poem of unrequited love that riveted the audience to its seat by its painful beauty. The traditional Yiddish song “Ov Horachamim” featured violist Hank Dutt in this affecting Kronos arrangement inspired by Fraydele Oysher, one of the first female cantors.

The finale was a multimedia production named “…hold me, neighbor, in this storm…” written in 2007 by the young Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov. It is a work that attempts to reconcile the differences of the ethnic groups that comprised the former Yugoslavia. At the start of the piece, Harrington played a small bowed instrument called the gusle, and Sherba played the tapan, a large double-headed drum.

This was a long and spectacular evening that spanned everything from simple tunes to very funny moments, to music from many cultures that delved into emotions and events that perhaps can best be expressed only in music. Despite some technological aid, this is still just four musicians playing four traditional western instruments, but continuing to make music like no other ensemble. It was announced that Duke Performances will once again be bringing these remarkable artists to Duke during the 2010-11 season, this time for a concert featuring the works of Steven Reich.