Sixty years ago, the U.S. Department of State sent Dave Brubeck and his group on a mission of cultural diplomacy to countries behind the Iron Curtain. Their itinerary included stops in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, where Brubeck learned about the unusual time signatures that informed his celebrated composition “Blue Rondo a la Turk.” It’s ironic to think that today, many decades later, Kronos Quartet must make that journey of cultural opening in reverse, bringing music from the predominantly Muslim countries that President Trump has tried to ban from traveling to the United States here, rather than the other way around. Although he may not have been successful in building his wall, the President has erected a kind of cultural iron curtain designed to keep Americans from hearing and understanding the lives of a significant portion of the world’s population. It is to the credit of Kronos Quartet, the Iranian singer Mahsa Vahdat, and UCSB’s Arts and Lectures program that this concert took place on Tuesday in musical defiance of that isolationist impulse.
Rather than belabor the gesture with speeches from the stage, Kronos took the opposite approach, playing the music in a thoroughly darkened auditorium and without pause, so that listeners were immersed in the sounds, rather than the labels attached to them. The concert began with “Mugam Sayagi,” a magnificent and subtle work commissioned by Kronos from the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh 25 years ago. From there, they explored both traditional and contemporary music, and pop and classical sounds from Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and other places near and far. After more than an hour of uninterrupted instrumental music that included gongs and drums as well as the group’s traditional strings, they were joined by the enthralling singer Mahsa Vahdat, whose clarion voice soared above their collective sound for a stirring half an hour. Long may this extraordinary group thrive as cultural ambassadors representing the world outside to Americans.