Saturday, May 12, 2012

Van-Anh Vanessa Vo shines in concert with Kronos Quartet

I had the wonderful opportunity last night of attending the first of two performances of a new Kronos Quartet program entitled "Women's Voices", featuring female performers and/or composers.

The concert opened with Nicole Lizée's "Death to Kosmische" (the latter apparently being a type of German electronic music that was highly popular there in the 60s).  Ms Lizée is based in Montreal and is known for composing pieces that combine "normal" instruments with, for example, Atari video game consoles, karaoke tapes, handheld video games, solo turntables, and omnichords. "Death to Kosmische" employed many of those ideas, and it was visually entertaining to watch the renowned Kronos members take their individual turns at playing deliberately noisy hand-held gaming devices between their bravura music passages. The primary impression that remained from this work, though, was just how tightly together the Kronos ensemble really is - one had the impression that it must have taken hours of rehearsal to get both of the musical and extraneous motifs timed exactly together but they made it look confident and casual at the same time. 

The next piece on the program - "Flow" by Laurie Anderson (arranged by Jacob Garchik, born 1976) was stunningly, simply and hauntingly beautiful; perfectly performed, and perfectly framed by the two works on either side of it. The problem was, one wanted it to go on much longer than it did, and after the following piece on the program, one wanted to come back to it and hear it again. The soundscape of "Flow" teetered just slightly on the edge of "New Age acupuncture music" but it only teetered, tantalizingly - it never fell. Rather it left the listener with a genuine sense of being calmed, cleansed and healed of something, just through the sound colors and beautiful chords that shimmered, somehow, inside of the hearer, because Jacob Garchik's arrangement for Kronos utilized each instrument perfectly. Here's hoping a recording of this one comes out soon....

Two larger works on the program, Mosaic (from music of Delia Derbyshire) and Tundra Songs (2007) by Derek Charke, did not leave a strong impression on me, personally, but some audience members could be heard voicing their enthusiasm. The purpose for creating the Mosaic was laudable and made sense, when Kronos founder David Harrington explained it, but the end result seemed uncharacteristically bland and disjointed somehow - more to do perhaps with the ingredients than the cook(s).
The Tundra Songs featured Nunavut-born singer Tanya Tagaq who has won numerous awards in both music and film circles, toured with Bjork, and is known for her "throat singing" techniques. For this new work, composer Derek Charke traveled several times throughout the Arctic, in different seasons, while capturing a myriad of sounds from the nature, sea, and people of the region - and he shared the riveting story of his travels in the program notes for the concert. On paper it sounded absolutely fascinating. But in performance, the sounds got lost in the jumble of string quartet parts combined with Ms Tagaq's rhythmic sound effects (meant to portray animals and nature, if I'm not mistaken). One didn't hear a lot of "singing" at all, in fact, but it was obvious that Tanya Tagaq is very popular with SF audiences, having performed other works with Kronos and had residencies at the Yerba Buena Center in previous years. We'll have to check out some of her recordings online so we can hear her highly-awarded singing voice, because she is definitely a warm and expressive performer. 

Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ (photo by Nguyen Hong Vinh)
The centerpiece and star of the evening was multi-faceted, Emmy-award winning Vietnamese musician Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ. Born to a family of musicians, she has been studying, performing and preserving the traditions of her native culture and instruments since the age of four, and it is so gratifying to see her recognition skyrocketing, particularly here in the USA, during the past year. She has been a featured performer/speaker at a TedX conference and also appeared as soloist at Carnegie Hall this past January, but her commission to compose for the Kronos Quartet has been a tremendous highlight and catalyst for her continued expressive development as well.

About the resulting piece, entitled "All Clear", she has said "I want the audience to feel the suffering of women and children who bear the brunt of war, and of the many innocent people who are caught in the middle....{but also} through my music I hope to share a thousand years of Viet cultural history, which was overshadowed by the war. My instruments - the dan tranh, dan bau, k'ni and artillery gongs - represent the Viet cultural legacy. These instruments may have been drowned out by the sound of war, but they survive. "

And indeed Ms Vo's evocative performance of her stunning composition, graced by the heartfelt involvement of each member of Kronos, not only succeeded in preserving those instruments of the culture but allowed all members of the audience to experience and share her imagined memories, as if they had been there as well. The theater-piece is a consummate vehicle for Vanessa to employ so many of her talents and she was gracefully everywhere - moving from one area of the brilliantly designed stage set to another, singing, drumming, playing the instruments, acting, speaking, against electronically delivered sounds that she had recorded on research trips throughout her native country.......and all the while exhibiting quiet confidence and matchless technique. Particularly in the emotive but rapid passages that she has written for herself on the dan bau, she manages to find notes literally "in the air" with mystifying accuracy and speed, creating entirely new playing techniques for this ancient instrument.

The piece wove a story and led the audience on a deeply felt experience; tonight's performance will thankfully be recorded and filmed, so we hope that even a portion of its power will come across for those who cannot be there. Kudos to Vanessa and the Kronos Quartet for this new gift to humanity. As Ms Vo has written, "The sound at the end of All Clear is a bridge between the past and present. "....but here's to future collaborations between Kronos and Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ as well! -----------------------------------------------------------------

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