Sunny Yang joined Kronos Quartet in June 2013. Now, just five months later, the cellist she says she's learned quite a few new works — not just a handful, but about 70 pieces.
That degree of dedication to contemporary composers, coupled with an insane concert schedule, has propelled Kronos Quartet forward over the past four decades. If they wanted, the musicians — who also include founder David Harrington and longtime members John Sherba and Hank Dutt — could reminisce over more than 800 new works and arrangements they've commissioned in 40 years. But instead, the new-music train pushes ever onward to new territories. They remain a living, breathing world-heritage site for music.
Now in the midst of its 40th-anniversary tour, Kronos brings to this Tiny Desk Concert a new arrangement, a work from a new album and, for Kronos, something of a chestnut, a piece the group recorded a whopping five years ago.
Aheym (Yiddish for "homeward") was written for Kronos by Bryce Dessner; a member of the Brooklyn rock band The National, he studied composition at Yale. The music thrives on nervous energy, pulsating with strumming and spiccato (bouncing the bow on strings) while building to a tremendous fever. It also opens Kronos' new album of Dessner works.
"Lullaby," a traditional song with Afro-Persian roots (from the group's Eastern-flavored 2009 album Floodplain), is woven from different cloth altogether. Colorful tones that lay between our Western pitches are threaded through the music, anchored by a gorgeous solo from violist Dutt; his contribution takes on the warm and weathered sound of a grandmother singing to a child.
Kronos caps off the concert with another hairpin turn, this time to a fresh arrangement of "Last Kind Words," a little-known blues song from around 1930, recorded by singer and guitarist Geeshie Wiley. In Jacob Garchik's exuberant arrangement (which Kronos premiered this fall), interlocking strums and plucks provide a kind of rhythm section, while Harrington's violin stands in for the now-forgotten blues singer.
"Last Kind Words"
David Harrington, violin
John Sherba, violin
Hank Dutt, viola
Sunny Yang, cello
Producers: Denise DeBelius, Tom Huizenga, Anastasia Tsioulcas; Editor: Gabriella Garcia-Pardo; Audio Engineer: Kevin Wait; Videographers: Denise DeBelius, Becky Harlan, Abbey Oldham, Meredith Rizzo; photo by Meredith Rizzo/NPR