Fuse Classical Music Review: A Far Cry Goes A Long Way

A Far Cry’s youthful exuberance is no doubt one of the most important keys to its egalitarian vision, but a good share of the credit is due to intelligence, vision, and carefully-honed and finely-tuned musicianship.

A Far Cry. At Jordan Hall, New England Conservatory, Boston, MA, September 23.

By Richard Bunbury.

A Far Cry — democracy is coming of age in the classical music world.

A Far Cry string orchestra is an airtight ensemble whose mastery of a broad spectrum of dynamics and timbres not only generates an exciting musical experience but makes a strong case for dispensing with the traditional, baton-wielding leader. A chorus of unified voices and bodies, the group creates a performance synergy that works on a visceral level. Their bodies, bowing and breathing, moved in unison like a corps of dancers or trees surging in the wind, reflecting the undulating shapes of the music’s phrases.

Also, the program at Jordan Hall was brilliantly conceived with each work opening a conceptual path for the succeeding piece, though there were bumps along the road. “Divisions” was the unifying theme of the evening, introduced in the program via a rather corny metaphor: “This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.” The idea only mucks up the clean and sharp notion established with “Divisions.” And there was a 15-minute delay before the start of the concert, followed by frantic and understaffed set-ups between pieces. Looking ahead to the rest of their season, A Far Cry has chosen one-word monikers for other programs as well: “Memories,” “Heartbeats,” and “Echoes.” My advice is to let the concept and the music do its work.

The static, straight-toned harmonies of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres opened the program as well as the mind of the listener. The composer’s minimalist style, which he himself calls “tintinabulum,” is largely inspired by medieval Christian and Eastern mysticism and overlapping cyclic notions of time. A clave and bass drum pattern sparsely introduces the work and continues to set apart what are essentially a set of variations on the strings; the variations sit atop a persistent, double bass drone throughout. What set this performance apart from recorded versions, and is clearly a hallmark of this orchestra, was its tremendous dynamic range, which arches from the soft and small to the bold and vigorous.

A Far Cry — youthful exuberance.

Ralph Vaughn Williams’s Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis broke the unanimity of the Pärt. It’s concerto, grosso-like construction of double orchestra and soloists furthered the thematic concept of “Divisions.” The orchestra evoked a warm sound perfectly suited to the composer’s English, Romantic harmonic language and continued its sparing use of vibrato. The players went about performing the piece without sacrificing the slightest bit of sonic richness.

Now dividing into a smaller ensemble, A Far Cry proved with “Criers” that the industrial strength of Steve Reich’s Triple Quartet was not too difficult to master. Its incessant hammering in complex polyrhythms require a very different kind of precision than what’s demanded (and was demonstrated) in the two previous works. The middle movement offers some relief, by contrasting several melodic fragments, before returning to a deliberate frenzy in the third. It felt like an alternative rock concert with strings.

What could possibly follow the first half of the concert? Why, Bach and Beethoven, of course. And not only that, but the last “Contrapunctus” of the Art of the Fugue, a piece that, loosely speaking, Bach died before he could complete. And not only that, but the “Criers” continued with hardly a breath into Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. The orchestra, joined by younger prep students in this segment, took us from Bach’s carefully worked out statement of proportion and logic to Beethoven’s world of fragmentation and juxtaposition of logic and raw emotion. Divisions were laid upon divisions and fugue upon fugue. I was left exhilarated by the concept and execution. This is the way good programing should proceed, not just a neat balance of pieces of various lengths, styles, and historical periods.

I had come to hear for myself what all the critical noise is about, to see and hear what is unique about this conductorless string orchestra. After all, the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has been performing without a conductor for nearly 40 years. A Far Cry’s web site asserts that the group is “self conducted and cooperatively directed.” You had better believe it—democracy is coming of age in the classical music world, for medium and large ensembles, and A Far Cry is among those leading the way. The group’s youthful exuberance is no doubt one of the most important keys to its egalitarian vision, but a good share of the credit is due to intelligence, vision, and carefully-honed and finely-tuned musicianship.

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