Kronos Quartet--John Sherba, Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt and David Harrington-- perform at Zellerbach Hall on Saturday. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.
Kronos Quartet: John Sherba, Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt and David Harrington–perform at Zellerbach Hall on Saturday. Photo: Jay Blakesberg
Kronos Quartet: John Sherba, Sunny Yang, Hank Dutt and David Harrington–perform at Zellerbach Hall on Saturday. Photo: Jay Blakesberg

Kronos Quartet lives in the vanguard. The celebrated San Francisco string ensemble returns to Zellerbach Hall Saturday for a Cal Performances concert with three new works from Fifty for the Future, a program that turbo charges the group’s longtime practice of commissioning and presenting music by young composers.

But the emotional centerpiece of Saturday’s concert is likely to be the Bay Area premiere of ‘Strange Fruit,’ a song that was written and recorded before any members of Kronos were born. Arranged by trombonist Jacob Garchik, a gifted New York-based improviser and composer who’s collaborated widely with Kronos over the past decade, the anti-lynching anthem made famous by Billie Holiday has taken on a new resonance.

Berkeleyside recently caught up with Kronos violinist David Harrington just after he returned from a European tour, where the quartet performed the arrangement in Warsaw as the third encore “in a program of music written by Jewish composers,” Harrington said. “I introduced it saying that in my opinion this song is right at the center of most of the problems that exist in our country.”

‘Strange Fruit’ is part of a program focusing on new works, including the world premieres of Anna Meredith’s “Tuggemo,” one movement of Garth Knox’s three movement “Satellites,” and Aleksandra Vrebalov “My Desert, My Rose,” which were all commissioned as part of the Fifty for the Future initiative. Kronos is also playing Philip Glass’s “String Quartet No. 7,” Reena Esmail’s arrangement of N. Rajam’s “Dadra in Raga Bhairavi,” and the Bay Area premiere of Mary Kouyoumdjian’s “Silent Cranes,” a multimedia piece commissioned by the quartet and composed in memory of the victims of the Armenian genocide.

Amidst the intense and wide ranging material on the program “Strange Fruit” stands out as a uniquely charged chapter in the annals of American music. Written by leftist New York City school teacher Abel Meeropol (under the pen name Lewis Allan) in the late 1930s, it became an anti-lynching anthem when jazz vocalist Billie Holiday recorded it in 1939 and started using it as a stunning show closing set piece at Café Society, New York City’s first integrated night club. A member of the Communist Party at the time, Meeropol and his wife went on to adopt Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s two sons after their execution for atomic spying.

In crafting the arrangement Garchik drew on two recordings that bookend Holiday’s relationship with the song. He worked primarily from the original 1939 Commodore record, but  also references the last studio version she recorded (for the 1956 Verve album Lady Sings the Blues). A Bay Area native who’s the son of San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik, he grew up going to school with Harrington’s daughter. He connected with Harrington years later when he played a 2006 Prospect Park gig with Slavic Soul Party on a double bill opening for Kronos Quartet.

Garchik has written numerous arrangements for the ensemble over the past decade, specializing in works based on female vocalists, “especially women with low voices,” he says. “Something about the quality of the female voice translates really well to a string quartet. You can have one of the violins play the role of a voice in a very rich register of the violin. We’ve done pieces by Greek musicians, Chinese musicians, many different styles, and of course Billie Holiday, one of the great voices. David’s wanted to do something with her for a quite a while. The song is so politically important and pertinent to what’s going on.”

Harrington feels the song has unleashed new qualities to his playing. The quartet premiered the arrangement in September at the University of Texas at Austin. While working on the piece the day before the concert he experienced an epiphany. “I was channeling Billie Holiday’s voice,” he said. “All of the sudden my bow arm came to feel like it had many more colors and nuances than ever. The next day I mentioned it to the audience. I can’t tell you if I’ll be able to do what I did yesterday, but now I know I can do it. I feel it’s important to keep taking challenges.”

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....