Kronos Quartet: Rare mingling of wonderful music and enchantment

Monday, 11 March 2013
Kronos Quartet with Wu Man NZ Tour

By William Dart, The New Zealand Herald

We had not come to the Civic Theatre to hear Haydn and Mozart from Kronos Quartet; in partnership with pipa virtuoso Wu Man, the Americans were offering a rare mingling of music and magic.

The hushed enchantment of Tan Dun's 1994 Ghost Opera weaves the ancient mysteries of the composer's homeland into a poetic ritual that incorporates the music of Bach at its most yearning and words of Shakespeare that pre-empt the existential.

The musicians pitted the innocence of folk music against the elemental sounds of stone, metal and water. When the brilliant Wu's pipa was at its most mandolin-like, it was not difficult to imagine that some ghostly bluegrass had strayed into the Chinese hinterland.

After interval came the 2009 A Chinese Home, a collaboration between Kronos leader, David Harrington, Wu Man and the charismatic Chen Shi-Zheng, responsible for the visual design.

This 52-minute journey through Chinese history played out in front of a carefully curated video stream, with the musicians' costumes graduating from old-style ceremonial robes through Mao jackets to modern-day business suits.

It was fascinating to compare the cool impassivity of on-screen Chinese musicians with the drive and spark of the live quintet, and Wu was a revelation as a sweet-voiced chanteuse.

The section devoted to Shanghai occasioned nostalgic film footage, together with recordings from the glamorous Zhou Xuan to familiar Billie Holiday. The players blended subtlety into a patchwork of songs in which the sentimental was often only surface deep. The third section covered Mao's years, bypassing the brutalities of the Cultural Revolution.

The musicians enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek kitsch of a Revolutionary Suite from the 1964 film The East is Red. Arranger Jacob Garchik came up with just the right ironic sounds for images of high-kicking ballerinas with bayonets.

The final scene proved a theatrical coup. Wu delivered a Jimi Hendrix turn on electric pipa, while her colleagues opened ominous crates to set mechanical toys whirring and flashing all over the stage. Without a doubt, another festival triumph.