The lights in the house go down, and the four members of the Kronos string quartet emerge onto the stage. Bows in hand, they take their respective seats behind their sheet music and begin the performance with “String Quartet No. 2: Movement I,” a piece Philip Glass himself wrote for the musicians in the Kronos Quartet. They have their audience members at the edge of their seats, captured in the moments of robust silence strewn throughout the composition. In the last measure, the members of the quartet looked at each other, picked up their bows and turned to face the audience, which had already burst into applause.
In the past year, the world has celebrated the 80th birthday of one of the most accomplished modern composers — Glass. To pay tribute to Glass’s body of work, San Francisco Performances organized a series of productions that break into the robust body of the artist’s work. On Feb. 20, they will be hosting Glass for the 10th time. In anticipation of this event, San Francisco Performances hosted a duo performance with pianist Timo Andres and the legendary San Francisco Kronos Quartet, a collection of artists who have frequently worked and performed with Glass throughout his lifetime.
The effect of watching the Kronos Quartet play is mesmerizing. The musicians possess a individual, unique qualities with which they play — conveying a certain mastery and style that can only come with years of refinement and discipline. And it’s this individual strength that ultimately contributes to the collective dynamism that the group has brought to the stage for the last four decades. In “String Quartet No. 4:Movement III,” David Harrington, the violinist who founded Kronos back in the early ‘70s, punctuated each pause with his heavy — yet controlled — breathing. The black grand piano that rested at the back of the stage reflected his spine to the audience, which contracted and relaxed as he leaned into every note. At the end of this number, each player ended on a different count, fading out of the song and into a smile before the final note.
For their last piece, the Kronos Quartet played the high-energy “String Quartet No. 5: Movement III,” another composition written for them by Glass himself. The piece begins as if it’s already in the peak of its conflict. Each of part of the song chases after the last — whenever a violin slows down, the viola follows to pick up the pace. In a flurry of bows, the musicians stayed precisely on tempo as their sheet music flew rapidly.
Right before intermission, Harrington sat down with Andres. When discussing the Glass pieces they chose to perform, Harrington said it was hard to encapsulate the work of Glass in 25 minutes, but that he strove to give the audience a sense of their journey through his music. Both Andres and Harrington discussed how working with Glass on various projects in the past gave a unique sense of collaboration. Harrington and Andres both reflected on what it was like to be in rehearsal with the composer. They described how Glass trusted his collaborators, pulling on the variations and suggestions of every individual musician in the room to improve his own work.
The pair further talked about experiences they’ve had working as professional musicians. They weaved through the pros and cons of playing mezzo forte and mezzo piano and how uncomfortably loud they had to perform in this degree of sound for live performances of Dracula because the audience applause became too loud. They jokingly claimed Glass did the horror film’s score just for the opportunity to go on tour with his friends.
Even after decades of playing his music, the speakers reflected on how physically difficult it is to play through Glass’ compositions. Harrington discussed the range of notes he has to accomplish on his violin to perform these pieces, ending with a joke about how the audience should “play a Philip Glass piece — it’s good for your health.”
After intermission, Andres did a series of études by Glass. As he played through each piece, his body gracefully swayed in circular motions. He wasn’t just performing — his body became an extension of the music he played. He rounded out each note with the swaying of his back, sending vitality into every bar with the energized rocking of his rounded fingers.
After another brief interview between Andres and Harrington, the quartet and the pianist gathered on stage to do one last piece. In their final performance, a piece from Glass’ Dracula, the musicians ended the night with an invigorating spirit — leaving their audience eager for Glass’ own performance this month.