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Are the Kronos Quartet still shattering boundaries of classical music 50 years on? We went to the Barbican to find out

Are the Kronos Quartet still shattering boundaries of classical music 50 years on? We went to the Barbican to find out

It’s not very often you take your hot date to a string quartet on a rainy Saturday night. Especially when last weekend we were at Drumsheds. But I’d say last night’s turbulent programming was of similar contrast.

It was the first time I’d ever sat down in a packed, yet silent, auditorium to watch a string quartet, so Kronos Quartet seemed like a great place to start.

According to the New York Times, “Kronos Quartet has broken the boundaries of what string quartets do”. I wouldn’t know, but I’ll tell you what I found out.

Sitting comfortably in my Nike Air Force 1s, I felt like I was pushing the boundaries of what the audience should be; lightyears outside the brushed leather Clarks around me. They’d have appreciated it.

If you’re like me, you’d be imagining the fellas from the Titanic orchestra gracing the stage in their bow ties and stern faces, quivering at the fact I just called them fellas. 

If so, you’d be horribly incorrect. Partly because the Kronos Quartet represent quite the opposite and also because the Titanic never had a quartet.

Fifty years on, the multi-Grammy-winning, San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet are etching their name into the classical music pool as if it’s their first year. They have to be different, they have to rethink their programs and they must add to their legacy of innovation. Did they? Here’s a take from a man who solely listens to Arctic Monkeys.

As the lights dimmed and the weighted blanket of the darkness cloaked the chatter of the hall along with it, the Kronos’ Five Decades video echoed through the room. Both reminiscent yet future-focussed, it was an introduction that looked at the past as a mere step that enabled them to be where they are now and where they want to go.

At one point in the video, Hank Dutt claimed that music is this ever-evolving, eternally deepening mysticism that he could spend 500 years trying to master and still never feel like he’d achieve it.

That opened my eyes to the curious sub-cultures in every route of music. This experience was already equally as bizarre and interesting in its traditions and expectations as say, grime, to many people there.

On stage, you could see the virtuosity of each individual player. It was magic. Close your eyes and you were in this whimsical soundscape of irrefutable collective craftsmanship that had a fifty-year stamp on it. Open your eyes and you can pick out the individual significance that each of the performers injected into the intricate, fast-paced, compositions that were rolling out in front of you.

Immediately, my head was tilted with sheer intrigue like a dog watching you eat your dinner it’s been smelling you cook for hours and not getting a single piece. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t confused at some points, maybe even on edge with some of the sounds or directions they snapped into. 

But I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t mesmerised. 

Their living art form looked to address societal and environmental issues with “Peace Be Till,” in which Dr. Clarence B. Jones reads from Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from Birmingham Jail.

A deeply moving piece that had you fiercely present in the hall yet lost in thought in your head.

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Yahael Camara Onono, the leader of Balimaya Project, and the Barbican’s 2022-23 Milton Court Artist in Residence joined Kronos to play djembe on Dumisani Maraire’s Mai Nozipo from the classic Kronos album Pieces Of Africa. 

Indonesian composer Peni Candra Rini joined the UK premiere of her piece Maduswara. An enchanting journey that was a true signal of their constant push for innovation.

It was the encore of their version of Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze that they’ve ‘been waiting for fifty years to play’ that everything seemed to make perfect sense to me.

The dark handbrake turns they’d be taking throughout their show that I thought was the norm, was, in fact, their personality. Wringing solos and frantic compositions out their instruments as if it were a wet towel.

It was clear we were here to watch as they celebrated their 50 years; not for them to play for us. The story they were telling through the program was a reminiscent flickbook of everything they’ve achieved so far.

Purple Haze was only opening the door to their next chapter and keeping that dark enigma floating in your mind.

And it was worthy of tumultuous standing ovations. 

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