The Kronos Quartet has been challenging the conventions of chamber music and the concert hall for nearly 30 years now. Most of those conventions are still standing, and a lot of what once was terribly radical in a typical Kronos program now seems quite tame. But the ensemble still has a niche and a following, still has a lot to offer those seeking a taste of novelty.
On Sunday evening, presented as the season-closer by the Shriver Hall Concert Series, the quartet offered an eclectic sampling of repertoire, most of it fashioned specifically for Kronos. Not all of it was of equal quality; not all of it was well played. But all of it was accompanied by nifty lighting effects that would have delighted Leopold Stokowski, who experimented with concert mood-lighting back in the 1930s. (Maybe nothing is ever really new.)
The meatiest matter also turned out to be old - Alban Berg's "Lyric Suite" from 1926. Most string quartets approach Berg from behind. Steeped as they are in music of the 18th and 19th centuries, they embrace his latent romanticism. The Kronos spends most of its time playing music composed long after Berg. When they look at his "Lyric Suite," they zero in on its modernity, making even the quotation of Wagner's "Tristan" sound somehow closer to our sound world than to his.
The performance caught both the warmth and depth of this complex, emotional work, though from where I was sitting, the incessant noise of blowing air in the theater competed heavily with the softest, subtlest passages.
Serving as bookends for the program were minimalist pieces from 1999. Steve Reich's Triple Quartet offers more than the expected motor rhythms and basic chords; there is a strong dose of lyricism and, especially in the second movement, a colorful dash of Jewish melody. The piece, which requires the musicians to interact with themselves on pre-recorded tape, was vibrantly delivered.
But a suite from Philip Glass' soundtrack to the 1931 film classic "Dracula" made little impression, partly because the composer did not get beyond his trademark riffs often enough and partly because first violinist David Harrington was consistently out of tune.
"Oasis," a recent work by Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, proved to be more sound effect than provocative musical statement. Harrington and violist Hank Dutt did some sexy phrasing in Margarita Lecuona's "Tabu," one of three colorfully arranged Latin songs.
The quartet was in vintage form in "Collected Songs Where Every Verse is Filled With Grief," an adaptation of a choral work by the late Alfred Schnittke; this mix of mystery and faith, ancient and modern tones, provided a memorable, only-by-Kronos moment.