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Music review: Kronos reunites with former cellist in Berkeley

December 14, 2009 |  3:07 pm


Reporting from Berkeley

In December 1998, Joan Jeanrenaud played her last concert as cellist of the Kronos Quartet and left the ensemble early the next year. After 20 years, the Kronos without Jeanrenaud seemed unthinkable. The only woman in the group, she was not only a captivating, eloquent musician -- as well as a willowy beauty -- but she also provided the ensemble its casual, avant-garde fashion sense, which revolutionized the look of classical music.

Jeanrenaud, however, had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and maintaining the Kronos’ extensive travel schedule was no longer possible. For those who knew of her illness (she didn’t make it public at the time), the specter of Jacqueline du Pré, the brilliant young British cellist whose career was tragically ended by MS in the ‘70s, seemed ominous.

But the news hasn’t been nearly so bad. Jeanrenaud has been able to continue performing, and many composers with whom she became friends during her Kronos years have lined up to write new pieces for her. She has also found her own creative spark and become a composer of note in her own right. Now she is being asked to write pieces for a new generation of hip, young string quartets. Last year, her CD “Strange Toys” was nominated for a Grammy.

And Sunday night here at Hertz Hall, as part of UC Berkeley’s Cal Performances, she reunited with Kronos for the first time in 11 years. A new string quintet by the controversial Russian composer Vladimir Martynov was commissioned for the occasion.

She walked on stage with a cane, but the moment the cellist sat down with her old colleagues (violinist David Harrington and John Sherba and violist Hank Dutt) she seemed at home. She also appeared slightly the mother hen to the ensemble’s young cellist, Jeffrey Zeigler, who was born in 1973, the same month that the original (pre-Jeanrenaud) Kronos was formed in Seattle.

Joan Still, since this was a classic Kronos concert, there was little room for sentimentality. The evening began with two quartets by feisty young composers from the Brooklyn scene, where the distinction between classical music and pop has all but vanished, just as Kronos prophesied it eventually would more than three decades ago. The program ended with a recent work by Terry Riley using weird homemade instruments.

But the premiere of Martynov’s “String-Quintet (Unfinished)” was the big event. The 63-year-old Muscovite is a Kronos favorite, but he is otherwise little appreciated in the West. His extraordinary opera “Vita Nova,” premiered this year, was, I thought, unfairly trounced by British and New York critics who disapprove of his nihilist appropriations of other composers.

In the new quintet he turned his attention to Schubert’s C-Major String Quintet, noting in his program note that its so-called “heavenly lengths” are no longer long enough for the 21st century. An obstinate composer if ever there was one, he proposes they be prolonged forever.

Although only 21 minutes long, “Schubert-Quintet” is a start.  He gives the impression of time stopping by haltingly reconstructing the C-Major Quintet with original Schubert fragments that repeat over and over, as if Martynov simply can’t let go.

There are major rewards for the patient listener, especially in the delirious lushness of string textures. Jeanrenaud and Ziegler played throughout as one rich, super-cello, coddling the quintet in the lap of sonic luxury.

The two works that began the concert – Bryce Dessner’s beaming post-Minimalist “Aheym (Homeward)” and Missy Mazzoli’s entrancingly soulful “Harp and Alter” – were commissioned for an outdoor concert in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last summer. Both use electronics, and Mazzoli’s includes gorgeous sampled vocals by Gabriel Kahane.

Riley’s “Transylvanian Horn Courtship,” which was written last year and received its West Coast premiere Sunday, is nearly as curious as its title. It was written for new instruments based on the principle of the Stroh violin, or horn-violin, patented in 1899. A brass bell, instead of the normal wood resonating chamber, was employed to produce a louder volume of sound.

For Riley’s new work, the artist Walter Kitundu created a string-quartet set of Stroh-type instruments, applying the principle to the viola and cello for the first time. Riley then tuned them down half an octave, creating a mournful, raw sound from the slack strings.

The experiment didn’t completely work, since the lowered instruments have a limited tone range. They were appropriately atmospheric for Riley’s Indian-inspired drones. But for the livelier sections he relied on the ensemble’s standard instruments, which were further enhanced by electronic looping effects.

The quartet ends with a moment entitled “Keep Hands Up Close to the Face Before the Knockout Punch,” and that is what happened. Harrington broke a string just as it began. Riley’s was apparently one knockout punch too many in a memorable occasion that had already produced several.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Joan Jeanrenaud with the Kronos Quartet, from left, David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Jeffrey Zeigler. Backstage at Hertz Hall. Credit: Robert Durell/for The Times.