MUSIC REVIEW : Kronos in Multimedia Premiere

Trust the Kronos Quartet for the unusual. The veteran ensemble, which has been reordering the way we think about string quartet performance for the better part of two decades, has been moving in ever more theatrical directions.

Sunday the latest Kronos adventure into media mixing received its local premiere at the Wadsworth Theater, courtesy of the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts, one member of a commissioning sextet. A sculptural performance shell based on the four elements, “Assembly Required” certainly could not transmute musical lead into dramatic gold.

On the other hand, it did not debase the four works it sheltered Sunday. Alessandro Moruzzi’s design, moodily lit by Jack Carpenter, proved surprisingly neutral in impact.

Most effective was the Fire installment, framing Donald Crockett’s “Array.” There was nothing particularly stirring in the dull glow emanating from four burners on tripods, but the projection of the players’ shadows on screens--an idea at least as old as “Fantasia"--proved evocative of flickering energy.


Most trivial was the final Air segment, in which fluorescent squiggles dangled from poles behind the ensemble. There is much in the textures and quasi-aleatoric spirit of Lutoslawski’s Quartet to suggest air, but Moruzzi’s devices seemed more suggestive of glowing bats in a low-budget fun house than any mystical experience.

For Water, Moruzzi had Kronos place funnels of water over a plexiglass container, with shadows of the filling tank again projected behind the group. Earth may have been most representative of the effort--angular rods on which non-functional gears spun intermittently, ultimately doing nothing--but doing it quite enigmatically.

Credits for the production listed Jan Kirsch as choreography and movement coach, and she took bows with Moruzzi. Her contribution though, was invisible. Dressed in black, like stage hands, Kronos put together the sculptural components as a solemn, well-practiced but dramatically and technically unexceptional ritual.

Musically, the Kronos performance proved typically rapt, though coarsely amplified, with a steady hum that could be heard in quiet moments throughout the concert.

“Array,” the program’s most traditional work in materials and construction, thrived in the Fire environment. Crockett’s vigorous, skillfully controlled motivic manipulations elicited taut, focused playing.

There is nothing noticeably watery about “Pano da Costa” by Jon Hassell, and if the dripping of the water in Moruzzi’s design was meant to be audible, that failed completely. Instead, “Pano da Costa” is an extended exercise in haunting neo-ethnic bravura, a sort of village tone poem enlisting the rhythmic aid of caxixi , instruments that sound like maracas.

John Zorn’s “Cat O’ Nine Tails” is a sonic crazy quilt of bursts of scratchy instrumental competition, varied quotations and pop parodies that seems little more than a “Name That Tune” ordeal. Its relationship to earth was not immediately apparent, though it made a relevant connection to Moruzzi’s contraption idly spinning its wheels.

Lutoslawski’s expressive, intuitively directed Quartet deserves better than Moruzzi’s luminescent curlicues, but it could hardly get a stronger performance than the Kronos account. “Assembly Required” may not have been worth the effort, but the concert lurking within was a characteristically bold adventure.