I love experiencing art in weird places. Unconventional settings challenge our entrenched ideas and opinions, and are normally lots more fun too. Which is why I jumped at the chance to see the Kronos Quartet at Rancho Nicasio in Marin on Sunday, August 16. True, this is a group that's known for straying far from the traditional confines of classical music, and they've made this appearance an annual tradition in recent years. But let's face it, it's still pretty unusual to see an internationally-renowned string ensemble play in the beer garden of a rural Californian bar.
And it doesn't get much more rural than this. The Rancho is the focal point of Nicasio mainly in the sense that, without it, there wouldn't really be much of a town left to give a name to. As you settle down on the lawn behind the bar, drink in hand, surrounded by hills covered with cattle and dry grass, you can't really escape the fact that this isn't the sort of place you'd normally see classical music: there are wagon wheels stuck to the walls and a horseshoe pit in the trees behind you, the smell of smoke and barbecued pork drifts in the air, and the audience is dressed in odd combinations of tie-dye, flip-flops, and cowboy hats.
It's not just the clothes that are eccentric in Marin; the weather here has its idiosyncratic moments too. For their performance here last year Kronos had to battle an unseasonal combination of fog and frozen fingers. That experience may have informed some of their musical choices this time round as some of the compositions from the first half of this year's performance didn't seem well suited to the sweltering conditions. A couple of the slower pieces wilted a little in the heat, and even the darkly brilliant "Requiem for a Dream Suite" sounded oppressive beneath the full weight of the afternoon sun. But in the only change to the advertised program, the quartet opened with "12/12" by Mexican band Café Tacuba, and its samples of sultry guitar and feverish rhythms seemed a better fit. And Bryce Dessner's "Aheym (Homeward)" just before the interval was bright and flowing, a multilayered treat that reached out to the beauty of the landscape around us.
Lengthening shadows greeted a more sensual second half full of influences from the Middle East. Midhat Assem's Egyptian tango "Ya Habibi Ta'ala" flowed seamlessly into the bazaar sounds of "Evic Taksim" by Turkish composer Tanburi Cemil Bey. Even "Scatter," a piece written for Kronos by Swedish band Hurdy-Gurdy picked up on that strange instrument's Persian roots. Serbian composer Aleksandra Vrebalov's "...hold me, neighbor, in this storm..." contained enough eastern flavor to continue the theme, before the quartet's first encore, a traditional Lebanese song called "Wa Habibi," provided a perfect lament for the disappearing sun. Then Kronos closed the show with an outstanding performance of "Flugufrelsarinn" by Icelandic band Sigur Rós, accompanied by the calling of crows coming home to roost on nearby trees.
The unusual surroundings contributed to the performance in many other ways. For example, the ambient throb of big Harleys from the bar's parking lot combined surprisingly well with the music on several occasions. Meanwhile, the sound of ice rattling in people's drinks, the sight of a young girl dancing unselfconsciously to the side of the stage, and the odd piece of vaguely misplaced applause here and there were all welcome indicators that this wasn't a traditional classical music venue. Because, most of all, this concert was a reminder that in the open air, with the cool grass between your toes, your mind has much more space to wander.
Rancho Nicasio's 2009 BBQs on the Lawn season continues until September 7, 2009. For more information, visit ranchonicasio.com.