An Insider's Guide to San Francisco's Most Adventurous Classical Music Fest

Kronos Quartet.  (Wojciech Wandzel)

Update, May 30: Kronos Performing Arts Association (KPAA) announced that Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté canceled her appearance at Kronos Festival due to visa delays. According to KPAA, the United States embassy in Mali subjected her to the Trump administration's "extreme vetting" procedure that will delay her visa indefinitely. San Francisco Girls Chorus and Valerie Sainte-Agathe will still perform her piece, Tegere Tulon, on June 1.

"It is deeply upsetting that such an amazing vocalist would be prevented from sharing her unique artistry here," said KPAA Managing Director Janet Cowperthwaite. "What a missed opportunity for Kronos, the San Francisco Girls Chorus, and our audiences."

When it comes to collaboration, the members of Kronos Quartet don't seem too concerned with a musician's genre—or age, or language or musical instrument, for that matter. Instead, the contemporary-classical powerhouse tends to tap people whose work is emotionally moving, intellectually stimulating and technically impressive as hell.

To give one example: last year, at the quartet's annual festival at SFJAZZ, Kronos' delicate string playing accompanied a surrealist, sorrowful sailor song by freak-folk duo CocoRosie. As CocoRosie's operatic vocals swelled, the quartet's bows went flying as they shredded on their violins, cello and viola. Soon, tabla master Zakir Hussain joined in, beating a pitter-patter rhythm on his drums with the intuitive touch of a reiki healer. The musicians locked in step with the agility of the Warriors' starting squad, and the whole performance vibrated toward an epic crescendo, leaving the audience with their jaws on the floor.

That musical sorcery returns to SFJAZZ on May 30–June 1, when this year's Kronos Festival brings a program of four genre-agnostic concerts designed to inspire, challenge and delight—plus several artist talks and a film screening.

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"It's kind of like a fresco: a lot of it is getting put together even as we speak," Kronos Quartet's founding violinist and creative director David Harrington says over the phone. 

Premiering New, Experimental Works

The centerpiece of the festival is the premiere of three new works from Kronos' Fifty for the Future project, an ongoing initiative that commissions pieces from diverse, international composers. Kronos Quartet performs the resulting works at prestigious institutions such as Carnegie Hall, introducing the emerging composers to the upper echelons of the classical world, and deposits the Fifty for the Future scores and multimedia resources into an online archive that's free for all to use.

At SFJAZZ on June 1, singer-composer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté of Malian group Trio Da Kali performs her new Fifty for the Future piece inspired by tegere tulon, the impromptu hand-clapping songs and dances Malian girls create in the countryside. Ethnomusicologist Lucy Duran, who specializes in African music, will give a pre-show talk contextualizing Diabaté's performance.

On May 30, the quartet will also premiere a Fifty for the Future piece by Stanford professor Mark Applebaum, whose playful compositions have been known to include junk-as-instruments, non-musical players such as florists and even a piece for three conductors and no musicians. Plus, there's a new work Fifty for the Future work by Missy Mazzoli, a boundary-pushing rising star of the classical world and the Chicago Symphony's current composer-in-residence.

Also on May 30, Kronos Quartet pays homage to the work of left-wing historian Howard Zinn. Ethio-jazz singer-songwriter Meklit, cultural critic Rebecca Solnit, folk musician Lee Knight and poet/actor Michael Wayne Turner III will accompany the musicians with readings from works by Zinn and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Zinn's A People's History of the United States highlights how abolitionists, labor organizers, feminists, civil rights leaders and other dissenters shaped American history.) Meklit performs with Kronos once again on June 1.

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Paying Homage to a Folk Music Great

This year's Kronos Festival also features tributes to Pete Seeger, the folk musician and activist who would have turned 100 this year. Harrington considers him one of the all-time greatest American composers.

"I grew up listening to his music, we played it for our kids and we played it for our grandkids," says Harrington. "Now, Kronos is playing it for our audience."

At a pre-festival event at the Exploratorium on May 29, there's a screening of rare footage from Seeger's travels. And on June 1 at SFJAZZ, folk music historian Todd Harvey of the American Folklife Center gives a talk about Seeger's impact and environmental and civil rights activism. Composer Jacob Garchik, of the Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party, composed an homage to Seeger that Kronos will perform.

Contemporary folk artists following in Seeger's footsteps also perform with Kronos throughout the festival, including Sam Amidon, a multi-instrumentalist who grew up playing in a family band and has since been featured on albums by Tune-Yards and the National, as well as Lee Knight, a keeper of traditional Appalachian folk music.

CocoRosie joins Kronos once again on May 30, as does Jherek Bischoff, a horn and string player whose solo career emerged from a successful one as a side man in the influential experimental band Xiu Xiu. Bischoff performs his original compositions for Kronos and bass guitar.

"I'm energized by what I hear CocoRosie doing," says Harrington of the lineup. "And every time we're around Jherek Bischoff—he's one of the most 'up' persons that I know of. He brings everyone to a higher realm."

Giving Students a Chance to Shine

This year's artist-in-residence, opera singer and San Francisco Girls Chorus artistic director Valérie Sainte-Agathe, joins Kronos for all three evenings along with singers from the San Francisco Girls Chorus. Student musicians from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts also perform works from Fifty for the Future on May 30 and 31.

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"We think it's a good idea that our audience knows that music is happening in the public schools in San Francisco," says Harrington. "We're able to give young performers a chance to perform and to have an audience and to learn what it's like to get out there."

The Kronos Festival is more than eclectic, with multiple trains of thought that may not have obvious connections until one arrives and hears the master musicians in their element. The music may be all over the map—literally, as it comes from all over the globe—but Kronos Quartet's enduring belief that folk, experimental and classical music belong in conversation, on the same stage, unites the event's disparate programming. 

Harrington sums it up best: "I look at the Kronos Festival 2019 is opportunity for all of us to be reinvigorated, to learn more about what surrounds us and maybe to find things we didn’t know are happening."

The full schedule of events and more information on the Kronos Festival can be found here

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