Kronos Quartet celebrates anniversary with ‘Five Decades’ concert  

Cal Performances presents Kronos Quartet in “Five Decades,” a program of new music, on March 2 in Zellerbach Hall. (Credit: NACION IMAGO - ANTONIO RUBIO)

San Francisco-based Kronos Quartet, its name derived from Chronos, the mythological Greek god of time, is celebrating its 50-year mark this weekend in Berkeley with “Five Decades,” a concert of six commissioned works including the premiere of Indonesian composer Peni Candra Rini’s “Segara Gunung.”

The thrice Grammy Award-winning group — David Harrington (artistic director and violin), Hank Dutt (viola), John Sherba (violin) and Paul Wiancko (cello) — performs new music, often inspired by contemporary issues. While the Vietnam War was the hot topic behind George Crumb’s “Black Angels,” a multi-genre percussive work that sparked Harrington to form the ensemble in 1973, climate change is a major concern for him now.  

“I just got off a class with ethnomusicology students and the main topic was climate change and how it’s affecting musicians all over the world—there’s not one composer I’ve talked to in the last year who hasn’t mentioned issues of climate change,” Harrington says. “It’s not being treated seriously enough by leaders in our country and most other countries, leaders of all sorts of influential activities that could really make fundamental changes. In a way, it’s up to creative artists, experimental scientists, dreamers, imaginers and poets to invigorate the conversations.” 

Indonesian composer and vocalist Peni Candra Rini’s “Segara Gunung” (“Ocean Morning”) will premiere in Saturday’s concert. (Courtesy Arief Budianto)

Climate change is a key theme of “Segara Gunung” (“Ocean Mountain”), a Cal Performances co-commissioned four-movement work with gamelan instruments written in response to Indonesia’s vulnerability to volcanic and seismic activity as well as rising sea levels caused by climate change. Shadow puppets, original artwork and field recordings are elements of the piece, in which Candra Rini will join the quartet as a vocalist. 

Having instigated a remarkable 1,100-plus commissions in its lifespan, Kronos has collaborated before with several composers featured in the March 2 concert. Candra Rini was among contributors to a recent project to create a library of 50 contemporary performance pieces for amateur and professional string quartets. Completed in 2022, the works are accessible online for free.  

“Peni Candra Rini wrote for our ‘Fifty for the Future’ project, and we performed together and loved it so much that I thought, ‘She’s got to write another piece!’” Harrington says. We’re really looking forward to ‘Segara Gunung.’ We’ve never done anything quite like this before, and this music is incredibly wonderful and beautiful.” 

The program’s other compositions include: Severiano Briseño’s “El Sinaloense (“The Man From Sinaloa”) arranged by Osvaldo Golijov; Sofia Gubaidulina’s Quartet No. 4, which Kronos premiered in 1994 in its Carnegie Hall debut; and Triple Quartet by Steve Reich, who wrote Kronos’ “Different Trains,” a 1988 opus Harrington says has influenced many composers.

The concert also features excerpts from the epic 30-movement work “gfedcba” by Michael Gordon, who has been writing for Kronos for 25 years, each piece, Harrington says, totally different than the one before; and “ZonelyHearts” by Nicole Lizée, whom Harrington calls “one of the giants of sonic creativity.”

“In every case I heard music by each of these composers that magnetized me,” Harrington says. “And that’s what I look for every day of my life—music that just grabs me, pulls me, and I don’t have any choice but get involved with.”

The concert opens, though, with “Kronos at Fifty,” a film by Sam Green that offers hints of the issues that will artistically motivate the Kronos Quartet going forward. 

“In Sam Green’s introductory video, I am quoted as saying that I hope we can find music that will protect us from violence,” Harrington says. “Music is such a wonderful source of energy, it doesn’t belong to any of us—we get to share it—and as it enters one’s conciseness is totally free of pollution. I’m hoping we can activate our listeners and energize them to try to find solutions to some of the most vexing problems that humanity has.” 

Kronos Quartet’s “Five Decades” is at 8 p.m. March 2 in Zellerbach Hall, Bancroft Way at Dana Street, University of California, Berkeley campus. Tickets are $56-$82 with discounts for UC Berkeley students at (510) 642-9988 or 

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