For the last four decades, San Francisco's Kronos Quartet has been confounding the expectations of the classical music world by redefining the role of the traditional string quartet. Group leader/violinist David Harrington and his compadres -- John Sherba, violins; Hank Dutt, viola; and Jeffrey Zeigler, cello -- have explored classical, jazz, new music, folk, world music, and rock. Along the way, they've won a Grammy Best Chamber Music Performance for their recording of Allan Berg's "Lyric Suite" and become one of the world's most influential modern string quartets.
Kronos will be concluding its three-year residency at the Yerba Buena Center with two performances at the Center's Lam Research Theater on Thursday, Feb. 21, and Friday, Feb. 22. The program focuses on composers who live and work in San Francisco, and will include the world premiere of Pamela Z's "And the Movement of The Tongue;" Nathanial Stookey's "String Quartet No. 3, The Mezzanine," and the West Coast premiere of Dan Becker's "Carrying the Past." David Harrington took time out from a rehearsal for the upcoming concert to share his thoughts about the show.
Even though you play classical and new music, Kronos has a rock 'n' roll attitude.
We do a lot of different music -- rock, world, classical. We've commissioned more than 730 works for the group. I think all musicians look for music that has intense rhythmic energy, indelible melodies, and tenderness. Great music expresses a panorama of feelings that one does not expect to experience. What I want at a show is something you can't get anywhere else. That's what I hope to provide at a Kronos show.
What inspired you to move to SF?
We started in Seattle and played every place we could in Washington and Oregon. We moved to upstate New York for a few years, then moved to San Francisco because the lifestyle was good, the music was inspiring, and you had City Lights Books, so why not go?
You play everything -- rock, jazz, pop, and music from India, Africa, and Azerbaijan. What drives you to be so adventurous?
One of the pleasures of being a musician in 2013 is that we have access to music from all over the world. We're currently collaborating with musicians from China, Vietnam, Mali, and Azerbaijan. It's a fabulous time to be a musician. I'm learning more about music than I ever have. I'm on the edge of my seat every day. I've never felt more alive as a musician than I do right now.
Is this the first time you've done a program devoted to San Francisco composers?
Yes, we decided it's time to explore what's right here in front of us. We found three exciting pieces by local composers. We can't wait to play them. Pamela Z's piece, "And the Movement of the Tongue" investigates the way the English language is changed when immigrants speak it. People who use English as a second language individualize the language to their own needs. Pam recorded about a dozen voices of people from San Francisco to celebrate the diversity of people in the city. You can learn more about your own language when you hear it spoken by someone who's not familiar with it. Recorded voices will interact with the music.
Nathanial Stookey's "String Quartet No. 3, The Mezzanine" is a beautiful piece of music that brings together several of his influences. You'll hear his love of Mahler, Sibelius and his own sense of humor. It's a real stretch for him and it's wonderful to be part of this new piece.
Dan Becker's "Carrying the Past" was inspired by his grandfather, a big band trumpet player in the '20s. A few years ago, the family discovered some 78s in the attic and, for the first time, he could hear his grandfather's big-band performances. The piece was written shortly after his father died, so there's a connection with his past going back two generations. Nobody but the four of us has heard any of this stuff yet, so we're really excited. The concerts are going to give our audience a peek at what's happening, and what's possible, in San Francisco right now.