"It's a wonderful time to be a listener," David Harrington said last week, speaking of his Kronos Quartet and its imminent Toledo debut at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Valentine Theatre.
The adventuresome and eclectic program should prove Harrington's comment, made in a telephone interview.
And it should demonstrate how and why this award-winning ensemble has managed to carve a unique niche for itself in the burgeoning world of string quartets.
The basic ensemble — two violins, a viola, a cello — dates back more than 200 years to the height of musical activity in Europe. Today, the generic ensemble proliferates around the world, with a notable longevity that reflects both the musicians' dedication and the great appeal of the form.
Composers from Classical giants like Mozart and Haydn, Romantics like Beethoven, Impressionist geniuses like Ravel and Debussy, and many others continue to write for the tight harmonies and enormous energy a string quartet can generate.
Harrington says listening to Beethoven's E flat major quartet, Opus 127, inspired him to create, with friends, a classical version of the garage band.
"Since I was 12, knew I was going to be a musician and the world was going to just have to get used to it," he said. "I was hooked. I didn't have a choice. The sound of two violins, viola, and cello did something for me no sound has ever done."
There's no Beethoven on tomorrow's program. Instead, there is a careful selection of the music Kronos has made its own brand since it was founded in 1973 in Southern California.
Then, George Crumb's experimental 1971 string quartet, "Black Angels," provided the tipping-point for Harrington and his longtime colleagues.
With violinist John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, he set a course toward musical inclusivity and risk-taking that has made their quartet a standout among the hundreds of string quartets around the world.
Kronos has performed to raves around the world in some 4,000 concerts. It has made more than 45 recordings, and commissioned some 750 works.
It's the only string quartet to have won both the Polar Music and the Avery Fisher prizes; it took the 2004 Grammy Award for chamber music, and the players were named 2003 Musicians of the Year by Musical America.
"What I've found is there's an amazing amount of music to explore in the world and there's no better way to explore music than to do it in this format," Harrington said. "We've been really lucky in our explorations to be able to work with so many wonderful musicians."
Kronos has worked with artists from Tuvan and Inuit throat-singers, Chinese artists on the pipa (a huge lute), Tom Waits, Bollywood singers, Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzola, as well as up-and-coming composers who work in many musical styles.
"The audience that's going to hear our music [in Toledo] is going to get a wide spectrum of experiences, of sounds, of musical cultures, of viewpoints," Harrington said. Thursday's program will open with "Ayem" (Homeward), by Bryce Dessner, a Cincinnati native and Yale University grad in classical guitar who performs with the rock band The National. Kronos commissioned the work.
A version of Laurie Anderson's 2011 Grammy-nominated solo violin piece, "Flow, "will follow.
And, there's a new version of that Wagnerian chestnut, Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, which Kronos commissioned through its ancillary organization, the Kronos Performing Arts Association, from composer Aleksandra Vrebalov.
Watching the film, Melancholia, Harrington was struck by the Wagner melodies in the soundtrack.
"I had heard Tristan and Isolde before, but I heard it in a new way. I became addicted to that music." Harrington says he listened to some 75 versions of the work conducted by top maestros.
"I realized I had to play this music. Life would not feel right to me if I didn't play it," he said with a laugh.
Trouble is, "Kronos is not an orchestra."
He turned to Vrebalov, a Yugoslavian composer now living in San Francisco, to create a version for Kronos. The new version includes pre-recorded tracks that help the foursome begin to approximate the thick and sonorous Wagnerian sound.
And because there is still residual shunning of Wagner, for his WWII Nazi connections, Kronos will play "Sim Sholom," a cantorial work by Polish composer Alter Yechiel Karniol, just before.
"It's taken many, many years to put this all together and to get to the point where we can provide the experience you're going to hear," Harrington said.
Tickets are $50-$39 at valentinetheatre.com or 419-242-3490.