Three Los Angeles premieres and a revival of Elliott Carter’s First String Quartet (1951) proved a generous holiday offering for followers of the Kronos Quartet, making its latest local appearance Friday night in the auditorium of Schoenberg Hall at UCLA.
Of the three works being introduced, the most accessible was Philip Glass’ “Mishima” Quartet (1984), which comprises three excerpts from the composer’s score for Paul Schrader’s film, “Mishima,” and about which Glass has said, "(it is) really a reflection of Schrader’s image of Mishima . . . not Mishima, but a film or fictional or poetic version. . . .”
Whatever that means, the work heard Friday has the functional sound of a film background and, in the absence of accompanying visuals, leaves the listener free to create his own images. In doing so, it remains straightforward, tonal, steady of motion and, in mood, of a generalized sadness.
Most intriguing was Mel Graves’ “Soundtotem II” (1985), which attempts to translate into sound the composer’s feelings about the cultural heritage of Northwest Coast American Indians. In Graves’ own way--with numerous references to cantillation, drones and Oriental scales--it succeeds.
Most redundant, through the utilization of complicated electronics and amplification, was John Geist’s “Purgatorio” and “Paradisio” (1985), the two final movements of a three-part, “tone-poem setting” (the composer’s words) of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.”
The part of the string quartet in this ambitious work--the two new movements heard Friday occupy 21 minutes’ time--seems small, compared to the electronic portion.
In any case, the total is chaotic, unrelenting, often muddied of texture and thought, and not quite apprehendable on first hearing. The four members of Kronos--violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Joan Jeanrenaud--gave what seemed an impassioned, committed and careful reading, as, indeed, they had also done for the Glass and Graves pieces.
In this strong company, Carter’s 34-year-old Quartet No. 1 held up handsomely. If it is not a masterpiece--and that is still too early to tell--it is built of a substance, density and seriousness that give that impression. One of many works to come out of a decade (1945-55) we now see as an age of anxiety, its eloquent bitterness still emerges convincingly, without self-pity, and in an individual voice. And, since the players of Kronos have made it theirs, its messages reach the listener unfettered.