In High Spirits

A unique musical Day of the Dead celebration with the Kronos Quartet.

Innovation and tradition dance hand in hand when the Kronos Quartet celebrates “Day of the Dead” this Saturday (8 p.m., 510-642-9988) at UC Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. The concert hall will blossom with Mexican motifs — altars to the dearly departed, copal incense, and marigolds — in the mezzanine and onstage. “I can hardly wait to be there,” says Kronos first violinist David Harrington from his work space in San Francisco.

“This is the first time we’ve done something like this,” he admits. “We all have losses that we feel very poignantly about, and for us this is a way to connect with those feelings. But we also want to open up that experience to our audience by having them participate.”

Concertgoers are invited to contribute to the onstage community altar, but the music will undoubtedly be the most unique offering. In the Mexican tradition that fuses pre-Columbian indigenous spirituality with folk Catholicism, it is believed that around November 2 the dead come back to visit the living. Altars are constructed to welcome them with items they enjoyed in physical life. It’s a ritual that touched the imaginations of the acclaimed string quartet, too.

“The idea of a culture inventing a day where life and death are together is such an elegant and incredible way to celebrate life,” says Harrington. “There are little specks of death all over, and that is what really makes up life. You notice that in Mexico, and the music reflects that. I’ve just gone nuts learning more about this world. It’s so fantastically beautiful.”

For the last seven years Kronos has immersed itself in Mexican music. Inklings of this surfaced a few years ago when the quartet made a guest appearance on an album by Mexico City rockers Cafe Tacuba. Their latest album Nuevo (Nonesuch) is a culmination of that experience, with original compositions by Augustin Laré, Silvestre Revueltas, Roberto Gómez Bolaños, and Juan García Esquivel — and a special remix by Plankton Man of Tijuana’s Nortec Collective. Argentina’s Gustavo Santaolalla produced.

The Kronos Quartet’s “Day of the Dead” project is part of Cal Performances’ Hispanic Programming Initiative, Celebración de las Culturas de Iberoamérica. In the next few months, the series will present the Flamenco Festival USA 2003, Tango Buenos Aires, Inti-Illimani, and others.But for sheer mind-blowing new music à la mexicana, the highlight will be Saturday’s Kronos-commissioned work by distinguished Mexican composer Gabriela Ortiz, “Altar de Muertos.”

“I first met Gabriela on one of our early trips to Mexico,” remembers Harrington. “I’ve known about her for a long time. She grew up in a family that lived and breathed Mexican folk music. When it occurred to me that we should have a piece celebrating Day of the Dead, I knew she was the right person to write this music for us. I went to Day of the Dead in Oaxaca last year, and it’s interesting how much of what I felt and observed is in her piece.”

Kronos’ Mexican musical odyssey made a huge impression. Says Harrington: “This experience has taught us a lot about our own work and about what we might be able to do in the future. I will always be grateful to Mexican musicians and culture, and look at our album Nuevo and this concert as a little thank-you note.”

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