The Cusp of Magic

The Kronos Quartet and Wu Man, pipa, at Carnegie Hall on Friday, April 7.

I had never heard of the pipa before I attended this concert given by the Kronos Quartet and pipa player Wu Man, but I immediately recognized the sound of the lute-like instrument from countless Asian-themed movies. Part of the joy of the concert, however, was hearing Wu Man play the instrument as part of nontraditional compositions, music that doesn’t immediately bring to mind a watercolor image of a delicate woman in a silk cheongsam.

Not that I didn’t enjoy the more traditional work. Early Chinese Music, arranged by Wu Man and the members of the Kronos Quartet, was lovely and haunting, using a variety of rhythm instruments to punctuate the pentatonic melodies. The pluck of the pipa is generally more metallic and percussive than even the pizzicato of the violins, viola and cello, so Wu Man often carried the melody, and she turned out to be a beautifully sensitive soloist. Intricate, polyphonic lines that easily could have turned into a muddy mess instead crackled with coherence and precision. With a Western audience, the arranger-performers probably could have coasted on mere exoticism, but they never did. The work was accessible but challenging, never generic “world music” but true artistry.

The five musicians concluded the concert with Terry Riley’s The Cusp of Magic, a 2004 composition commissioned particularly for them. To my ears, Riley did a remarkable job of integrating Eastern and Western musical traditions without ever sounding gimmicky or forced. The third movement, “The Nursery,” felt a bit too quirky at a first — Riley imaginatively incorporated sounds from a variety of children’s toys, including a singing cowboy doll — but eventually the music made its own kind of sense. My favorite movement, though, was the second, “Buddha’s Bedroom,” in which Wu Man sang in a surprisingly rich alto voice.

The Kronos Quartet played two works on their own, J.G. Thirlwell’s Nomatophobis and Glenn Branca’s Light Field (In Consonance). My favorite was Light Field. It opened stridently, with insistent sawing on open strings, but as delicate harmonics revealed themselves over the rough bowing, I fell under the music’s spell. It built to an exciting, emphatic climax, the sound lingering in the air after the bows fell still. I’m still not sure how the quartet created all of Branca’s sonic effects, but the result was as magical as Riley’s composition.