The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: They made chamber music hip. The “forever young” Kronos Quartet turns 40 -– after changing the business model of recording, the repertoire of string quartets, and the public’s taste in chamber music.

April 5, 2014
2 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

They made chamber music hip when it used to be square.

I’m talking about the Kronos String Quartet, which for decades has, in Bob Dylan’s famous lyrics, remained “Forever Young.”

But they aren’t young except in spirit, where it really counts.

In case you missed it, a week ago Friday was the 40th anniversary of the internationally acclaimed and ever-performing, ever-recording, ever-commissioning and ever-morphing Kronos Quartet (below).

Kronos Quartet

The Kronos Quartet, which has a local Wisconsin tie through the original cellist Jean Jeanrenaud (below), who  retired in 1998 from the group and its hectic touring, made history in many ways.

Joan Jeanrenaud

For one, the Kronos changed the notion and model of string quartets and chamber music in general. They were unafraid to go electric when needed. And so they expanded the audience for string quartets and chamber music to younger people.

The Kronos focused on modern and contemporary music and commissioned hundreds of new works from contemporary composers. That is a formidable legacy for the future.

The Kronos focused on crossover music and broke the mold of separate categories. (Below, they are playing outdoors in Warsaw, Poland, in 2006.)

Kronos quartet outdoors in warsaw in 2006

The Kronos focused on ethnic music and Third World composers. (Below, they are playing with celebrated Chinese pipa player Wu Man, who is in the center of the photo.)

kronos quartet with chinese wu man

In the end, they sold millions of recordings and helped change the business model that string quartets and chamber music used to survive and prosper. (Below, they are performing on the BBC Radio in 2012.)

Kronos Quartet plyaing on BBC Radio 2012

Some critics of the Kronos might say they didn’t change it for the better. But what the Kronos did has remained permanent and popular. It changed the scene for many quartets that came after them, including the popular Quartetto Gelato and the Turtle Island String Quartet.

So to catch up with all that the Kronos represents, here are links to some pieces from background history and backstories to concert reviews.

Here is the story that was on NPR:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/03/27/294780979/the-kronos-quartet-still-daring-after-all-these-years

And here is a link to the NPR blog “Deceptive Cadence” that also offers sounds samples of pioneering work done by the Kronos. (Below, in 2013 in photo by Jay Blakesberg.)

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2014/03/25/293849927/kronos-quartet-at-40-songs-we-love

kronos quartet 2013 CR jay blakesberg

Here is a fine, comprehensive profile by The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/arts/music/kronos-quartets-40-year-adventure.html?_r=0

Here is a review of the concert in Carnegie Hall that appeared in the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/31/arts/music/kronos-quartets-wide-interests-project-from-the-stage.html?_r=0

Plus here is a review of the same program done earlier on the West Coast by The Los Angles Times:

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-kronos-quartet-review-20140317,0,4644880.story#axzz2xe4TjZSL

The Ear likes a lot of the Kronos’ work. But curiously I prefer some of the ethnic and crossover music -– a version of rock and roll icon Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” (in a popular YouTube video at the bottom) is the famous example — better than much of the contemporary stuff.

Two of my favorite Kronos CDs are “Pieces of Africa,” with its contagious rhythms, and “Winter Was Hard,” with its short but intense miniatures that included both early music and new music.

kronos winter-was hard CD

Kronos_Quartet-Pieces_Of_Africa-Frontal

What is your favorite Kronos Quartet album or even single performance?

And what role did the Kronos Quartet play in your own appreciation of chamber music, especially string quartets, and contemporary classical  music or new music?

The Ear wants to hear.

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