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Kronos Quartet Awarded Avery Fisher Prize at NYC Ceremony; Nonesuch President Robert Hurwitz Gives Remarks

Kronos Quartet 2009 horiz stand

Kronos Quartet—David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Jeffrey Zeigler—was awarded the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, which recognizes outstanding achievement and excellence in music, in a ceremony held last night at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. As the recipient of this honor, Kronos receives a monetary award of $75,000. On a marble plaque in Avery Fisher Hall, Kronos Quartet’s name joins the 20 previous Prize recipients, among them Richard Goode, Nadja Salerno-Sonneberg, Edgar Meyer, Emanuel Ax, and Yo-Yo Ma.

At last night’s ceremony, Nonesuch Records President Robert Hurwitz spoke of the label’s relationship with Kronos, now three decades strong, and the group’s unique contributions to the world of music. The full text of his speech is printed here:

It is a great honor to be able to join everyone here tonight to celebrate the remarkable accomplishments of the Kronos Quartet on the occasion of their being awarded the Avery Fisher Prize.  The lives of Kronos and Nonesuch Records have been profoundly intertwined over the last 27 years, during which time they have released 39 remarkable recordings. Their 40th album, a world premiere of Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, will come out in September. Their 41st, an album of music of the Russian composer Vladimir Martynov, will come out in January.  Their recordings really changed the face of music and, clearly, transformed the face of Nonesuch. This amazing accomplishment on their part has been at the heart and soul of our catalog, and we are grateful to have been a part of this process.

There are so many narratives that one can follow in talking about Kronos, but as I am sharing the stage tonight with so many other distinguished friends of the Quartet, I’d like to limit myself to a few aspects of Kronos that I consider as particularly significant in talking about their amazing accomplishments. There are three topics I’d like to briefly address: their idealism and optimism, the path of their career, and their position in the musical community as role models.

Kronos’ idealism and optimism are among their most endearing character traits. I have rarely met musicians who have maintained their ideals for as long as they have, especially living in a world where most would see their career as a constant, difficult, uphill struggle. After so many years together, after performing hundreds of pieces of new music, Kronos still performs each new piece as if it is a unique, fresh, and brand new experience. I have to single out David Harrington, who we all know has been on a life-long mission discovering and working with composers, who acts as if each new composer he discovers, and each new piece and performance is a revelation like none that preceded it. His never-ending curiosity about music from around the world is something I have not experienced at that level with any other musician. David and I have met at least three or four times a year over the last 27 years, and there has not been a single occasion that he didn’t pull a half dozen new discoveries out of his hat.

I love this enthusiasm of David, Hank, John, and Jeff, and during her many years with Kronos, Joan Jeanrenaud; their idealism, cheerfulness, and yes, optimism, is something that I have never experienced before, and because of it, I am always grateful to be around them. No matter what was going on in the group’s personal lives, or what was happening around them in this extraordinarily complicated world, Kronos has always looked forward, with a sense of awe about the possibilities of the future.

Regarding, Kronos’ career, as a group starting out in the classical music world in the late 1970s, they did everything wrong. They didn’t hire a press agent. They didn’t go to 57th Street in New York and hire a fancy manager who could make all the right moves and plot out their career step-by-step. They didn’t go to a big successful classical record company. (Thankfully.) They did not follow fashion in their programming. Instead, they built up their career, with an extremely dedicated and at that time unknown manager, Janet Cowperthwaite, in San Francisco, whose main qualification, besides her intelligence and incredible work ethic, was her love of new music and the idealism of the Quartet.

They slowly and successfully built up a following on their own terms in a way that no ensemble that I knew of had done before. Nothing was calculated, it was a practical model that was based on their needs, and the needs of the composers they worked with, not what the world expected. It was about Kronos doing what they loved to do more than anything else, and their faith that the public would be following them.

One has to put this in context to remember how unprecedented it was for classically trained musicians who specialized in new music to successfully establish a career that kept them working and rehearsing 12 months a year. For most musicians of that time, one could line up a few performances of new music here and there, but the idea of a career, where performing new music was your sole occupation: it was unheard of. As performers, Kronos invented a new model, based, again, on their idealism, that really changed the landscape for those who followed.

A few weeks ago, I was privileged to see Kronos performing at two astonishing events celebrating the music of Steve Reich, a concert at Carnegie Hall on one Saturday, and on the following weekend two days of three concerts each at the Barbican. Of course, the main event was Steve’s music, but on another level it was a festival of modern new music ensembles. Performers at Carnegie and the Barbican included the Bang on a Can All-Stars, So Percussion and eighth blackbird, ensembles that clearly looked at the Kronos model as an inspiration to the possibilities of a career exclusively performing modern music. Kronos has really become a role model to the generations of musicians who have followed them, who have seen that there is a passionate audience that will show its loyalty and interest in the music of its time in a deep and meaningful way.

One of the most important innovations of Kronos’ finding its way was its breaking down the musical barriers of genre, finding the great values not only in music that touched every corner of the planet, but music that did not exclusively belong to what we know of as classical music. A much larger world of possibility was now available, and their infinite curiosity has inspired the generations of musicians that have followed, and will continue to follow, to change the musical landscape.

There’s a song in Stephen Sondheim’s show Passion called “Loving You,” where the character Forsca sings “Loving you is not a choice / It’s who I am.” In their early days, they were musicians who loved all kinds of music, but above all, they loved playing the music of their time. It wasn’t just a courageous thing to play modern music; it was their only option. It wasn’t about taking a more difficult path; it was the ONLY path possible. In talking about Kronos, I think they really had no choice in the matter: to paraphrase Sondheim, in terms of their decision to dedicate their career to the music of their time, “It’s not a choice; it’s who they are.”

Kronos Quartet has also been awarded this year's Polar Music Prize, making them the first musician or ensemble ever to win both prizes, and will be given the award by King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden in a ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall on Tuesday, August 30.

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