The key to the Kronos Quartet's appearance at Shriver Hall on Saturday came in the final encore and the audience's response to it. The quartet played its own transcription of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" and the young audience went berserk with joy.
The concert celebrated the 25th anniversary of the chamber music series at Shriver Hall, once a bastion of Germanic seriousness in this city. The Kronos concert -- which used amplification, a set that suggested a TV talk show late in the 21st century and sophisticated lighting -- was an index to how much "serious" music has changed since the Shriver Series was inaugurated.
Like several other young classical musicians, the members of Kronos -- violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud -- are a marketing phenomenon. They wear Day-Glo outfits and sport haircuts of the sort one sees on the heads of Maryland Art Institute students. They are very hip, they sell a lot of records and -- truth to tell -- they are also a fairly good quartet.
Their performance of Alfred Schnittke's String Quartet No. 2 did justice to this serious, intense and beautiful work. If the performance did not have the purity of intonation and rhythmic accuracy of performances of the same work by the Arditti String Quartet, which also specializes in new music, that may not matter much. Kronos will bring this music to as many ears in a single season as the Arditti does in 10.
The 1980 Schnittke work was the oldest work on the program. It was also the only one that was not commissioned by Kronos. The most appealing of these commissions was the Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe's "Jabiru Dreaming," which treated aboriginal folk music with tuneful felicitousness. Not appealing, but nonetheless fascinating, was John Zorn's "Cat O' Nine Tails," which was a combination of scratchy avant-gardism, manic Looney Tunes and can-you-name-that-tune free association.