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MUSIC REVIEW : Kronos Makes Riley’s ‘Salome’ Dance, Dance

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

In the beginning about 25 years ago--there was Terry Riley’s “In C.” Some called it a monumental breakthrough in droning creativity. Others found it the musical equivalent of Chinese water torture.

With-it prophets of the avant-garde related it to the birth of minimalism. Fossilized iconoclasts related it to the death of intellectual and/or emotional stimulation.

Riley, born in 1935, did not choose to wear his high-priest robes for long. Younger aesthetic Turks usurped the commercially profitable realm of the Xeroxed arpeggio, and the grand old man retreated to his home in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He soon turned to other concerns, both spiritual and expressive.

Now--drum roll, please--comes Riley’s “Salome Dances for Peace,” a massive vehicle concocted for and with the wondrous and, thank goodness, tireless Kronos Quartet. At the local premiere of the complete version, Saturday night at the Wadsworth Theater, it lasted two hours, not including intermission. That is three times as long as Beethoven’s most ambitious effort in the same genre.

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Riley’s “Salome"--which owes little to Oscar Wilde and less to Richard Strauss--was intended as a sociopolitical ballet. The necrophiliac princess of Judea uses her alluring powers, we are told, to create universal peace. She becomes a goddess, a modern sorceress, a shaman, a warrior, and, it says here, “an influence on the world leaders’ actions.”

The internal sections of the five-part suite, most of which melt quietly into each other, bear provocative titles: “Fanfare in the Minimal Kingdom,” “At the Ancient Aztec Corn Races Salome Meets Wilk Talker,” “Half Wolf Dances Made in Moonlight,” “Breakthrough to the Realm of the War Demons,” and so onward and sideways. The titles, alas, are more theatrical than the score.

Riley and his players send their abstracted heroine on a convoluted, ever muted odyssey that may be better heard than seen. The music flirts amiably with jazz, blues, ragas, Asian modes, repetitive patterns, static rituals, and hoary Western traditions.

Melodies are allowed. Melodic fragments are encouraged. Fogies who do not find the exercise too soporific can identify traces of Debussy and Bartok, even a nod or two in the direction of late Beethoven.

It took Riley two years to write “Salome Dances for Peace.” It took the Kronos virtuosos three years to learn to play it. It took many members of the potentially sympathetic audience at UCLA an hour to decide that they had heard enough.

The exodus at intermission, and beyond, was alarming. The defectors could not have been disturbed by any bold dissonance or unnerved by any dynamic onslaught. Riley’s “Salome” music is invariably civil. It abounds in gentle gestures. Lyricism emerges the dominant impulses. The counterpoint is never too complex to be forbidding.

There are passages of striking poise and buoyancy in the work. The flow of motivic ideas and the exchange of subtle nuances often beguiles the senses. The rhythmic pulses, though occasionally stubborn, dictate an intricate inner logic. The writing for contrasting strings remains eminently idiomatic. The balances are impeccable, the textures transparent. This, clearly, is the work of a master.

If only it were a shorter, tighter, less indulgent work. Riley seems eager to crank out music--much of it undeniably beautiful--by the yard. One wishes he would care more about focusing specific beginnings, middles and ends. One wishes he would expend more energy on saying less. As presently constituted, his “Salome” lulls and dulls the senses just when a little provocation might be most useful.

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Undaunted, the dedicated members of Kronos Quartet--David Harrington and John Sherba (violins), Hank Dutt (viola) and Joan Jeanrenaud--once again made the difficult seem easy and the impossible seem merely difficult. Larry Neff’s visual designs--fluid patterns of mottled light projected on a screen behind the players--added the aura of a futuristic juke box.


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