The iconoclastic virtuosos who comprise the Kronos Quartet strode onto the stage of Schoenberg Hall, UCLA, on Saturday, resplendent in semi-leathery Medieval-mod finery.
As usual, David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt and Joan Jeanrenaud brought along a fascinating collection of contemporary challenges. As usual, they illuminated those challenges with insight and dedication, even with inspiration.
They also provided reassuring demonstrations of high technique and interpretive flair, of sensitive ensemble and perfectly attuned, mutually sympathetic abandon.
Some day it would be interesting, if it isn't heretical, to hear what these probing, gutsy-yet-refined musicians can do with some Schubert or Beethoven. In the meantime, one must remain grateful for their pioneering proclivities.
The program on this occasion didn't happen to follow the expected agenda with much fidelity. Instead of beginning, as scheduled, with Reza Vali's "Persian Folklore," the Quartet turned without explanation to an exotic collage by Roberto Sierra: "Memorias Tropicales" (1985). In four picturesque miniatures, it bristles with energy, dabbles in clever rhythmic sound effects, even indulges in a very pretty lyrical interlude before the snappily primitive finale.
Instead of ending the program, as promised, with Jon Hassell's "Pano da Costa," the conquering heroes and heroine improvised what the first violinist called a "jam session." This, he announced, was necessary because the Hassell scores had inadvertently been left at home.
Some introductions to the unrelated substitutions were mumbled from the stage. The words, unfortunately, did not reach Row J. However, it was clear that the Quartet was offering an assortment of premature encores-- petits morceaux , if you will, in place of the proper piece de resistance .
The anonymous four-part potpourri of Great Kronos Hits included a neat string-scrambling exercise, two quasi-futuristic variations on a tango theme, and a sweet study in pizzicato devices with a faint South African accent.
The three pieces in the middle of the program posed no identity crises. Somei Satoh's "Shirasagi," a.k.a. "The White Heron," introduced a network of exquisite, overlapping chordal sonorities that pulsed slowly, ebbed and flowed with pensive deliberation and ultimately evaporated in a silent gulf.
Gyorgy Ligeti's recently rediscovered Quartet No. 1 (1954) proved less fragile. Subtitled "Metamorphoses Nocturnes," it states its expressive points with fierce academic originality and often gnarled intensity. Then, without warning, it lapses into witty satire, mocking the harmonic and formal conventions of the genre.
In a brief, somewhat jolting bow toward pop nostalgia, the fiddling modernists ventured a changing of the avant garde: They paid affectionately jazzy, abidingly suave homage to John Coltrane with Jimmy Heath's arrangement of "Naima."
The exemplary program notes of Derk Richardson and Misha Berson enhanced the stimulation of the evening considerably.
Although the capacity audience loved everything, it didn't seem to love everything equally. Sophistication survives.