In these challenging times, in which Americans are amazed to find the troubles of the world laid at our doorstep, maybe it makes sense to seek entertainment that -- rather than offering escape or introspection -- embraces that troublesome, contentious world for what it's worth, unafraid and with open eyes and ears. In other words, we need the Kronos Quartet.
In its 28 years of existence, the renowned San Francisco-based string ensemble has dedicated itself to modernism and multiculturalism, performing 20th- (and now 21st-) century works from an astounding array of the planet's "serious music" composers. And some not-so-serious. Everything from Toru Takemitsu, Arvo Pärt, and Krzysztof Penderecki to Sun Ra, John Lurie, Raymond Scott, and Bo Diddley, with side trips to Zimbabwe (Dumisani Maraire) and Argentina (Astor Piazzola).
Sunday evening at UC Berkeley's Hertz Hall (7 p.m., $36, 510-642-9988), Kronos opens its home season with a typically well-thought-out selection of pieces. Substituting for Osvaldo Golijov's "Vespers," which is evidently not quite finished, the quartet plays Peteris Vasks' Quartet No. 4, a regular part of recent repertoire. Kronos violinist and artistic director David Harrington enthuses about Harry Partch's "US Highball: A Musical Account of Slim's Transcontinental Hobo Trip": "It's one of the really amazing American pieces of music. It has to do with a train ride during the Depression years, and the feeling is of a trip across America."
The mood of Americana continues with jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus' "Myself When I Am Real," which arrived serendipitously. "It was introduced to us by Andy Summers of the Police, who was involved in recording some Mingus tunes," recalls Harrington. "I had never heard of it before -- it's from an album of solo piano by Mingus -- but once I heard it, I knew we had to play it." Michael Gordon's "Potassium" rounds out the Hertz concert. Says Harrington, "That's a recent piece. It's totally enveloping and engaging, with a momentum shared by all of Gordon's work." Like the Vasks and almost half of the group's repertoire, "Potassium" was written especially for Kronos. Which makes it a small world after all.
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