Kronos Quartet still wonderfully weird at Universal Preservation Hall

Kronos Quartet still wonderfully weird at Universal Preservation Hall

SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s a funny thing when an ensemble dedicated to the new and unusual causes a feeling of nostalgia.  But Kronos Quartet, which performed Sunday night at Universal Preservation Hall, has been going for almost 50 years.  They were a key element in the avant garde,  becoming fashionable and exciting during the mid- to late-80s, right there alongside Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson.  They wore funky outfits, played weird pieces nobody knew and drew enthusiastic audiences. 

         Seeing the three original members arrive on stage not only stirred up memories of concerts from long ago but also brought to mind the sight of wrinkled and stooped rock stars still on the road and doing their thing.  It feels good to report that Kronos hasn’t lost its touch.     

         The evening was anchored by a searing performance of Terry Riley’s “Cadenza on the Night Plain.” The half-hour long piece is one of many the composer has written for Kronos.  Best known for his minimalist free for all “In C,” here Riley’s music is austere and controlled, spacious but dry.  The generous solos for each player were performed with earnest concentration, while there were ensemble passages that appeared like dances in the desert.  The performance confirmed Kronos as mature artists whose work with composers has resulted in music of lasting substance.

         Kronos’ commissioning program provided material for the concert’s first half, which was more light and playful.  The works by Peni Candra Rini, Aleksandra Vrebalov, Mazz Swift and Nicole Lizee functioned almost as a suite.  They were episodic and loose and frequently invited extraneous sounds to join the party.  Pre-recorded tracks of ambient noises and voices were also common.  The most extravagant and also the tightest composition was Lizee’s “ZonelyHearts,” which came last.  It included percussive use of dial up telephones, bowing on hard cover books, and striking the strings with flimsy rolls of paper. 

When Kronos made its major label debut in 1986, the inclusion of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” made a big impact and the song became a signature work for the group. It’s good to see the quartet still drawing from the rich well of rock and pop. After intermission came vibrant arrangements of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” as inspired by Jimi Hendrix, and Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” as made famous by Billy Holiday.  Dear Kronos, long may you prosper.

Joseph Dalton is a freelance writer based in Troy.