Boston has had a conductorless chamber orchestra since 2007 who, at this point, are easily a serious rival to the more famous (hopefully for not too long) Orpheus Ensemble. They are known as A Far Cry. They’re primarily a string ensemble of 18 members (who refer to themselves as “Criers”) who call upon other instrumentalists as required by the chosen repertoire. More can be learnt at http://afarcry.org. Saturday night’s (8/IX/2018) season opener at Calderwood Hall inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum of Art proved my point beyond a doubt in a resplendently played programme of, let’s say, interesting repertoire partially unknown or of otherwise borderline recognition.
Unfortunately, before the concert the audience had to forbear the blather of music curator George Steele, who not only chose to prattle on duplicately about what was already in the programme notes for over five minutes; but, chose to wait ten minutes after the concert was supposed to start. ISGM already has had problems with concerts starting on time; this simply made things worse. If Mr. Steele can’t resist the compulsion to palaver redundant information I suggest he do it BEFORE the appointed concert time. Notwithstanding, the concert proceeded generally quite nicely after his departure.
The first such piece was the slow movement “Agathon” from Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade for violin solo, strings, harp & percussion with the prodigiously gifted Tai Murray as soloist. Starting the programme off with this was a stroke of genius. It gave the strings (as led this time by Jesse Irons) a golden opportunity to show off not only their lovely tone, but the breadth of their dynamics. We all know that strings have considerable dynamic range; however, the tightness of ensemble control, the ability to “sing” as one, especially in extremely soft passages is what separates the children from the adults; and adults they are. As a result Ms. Murray was able give us a singularly perceptual and sensitive performance of one of Bernstein’s finest works. I would love to hear the whole Serenade with Ms. Murray and A Far Cry sometime. Let’s hope.
I love the idea of rotating “leaders” in what is essentially a conductorless ensemble because each leader still manages to put his or her individual stamp on the piece performed. Robyn Bollinger gave a justly aggressive approach to the one highly recognisable work on the programme: Mussorgsky’s ubiquitous Pictures at an Exhibition. The difference, this time was a arrangement by British composer Jacques Cohen for string orchestra. I must say, I am generally very tired of this piece: orchestras and classical radio stations constantly overplay the Ravel orchestration; moreover, it’s a miserable piano solo piece which obviously cries out to be orchestrated. So, yes it was the piece that made me think twice about coming to this concert. Notwithstanding, Mr. Cohen’s string orchestra version is not only ingenious, but actually surprisingly effective. The secret, I believe, is not only the discriminating implementation of various string “effects,” but, ironically, the homogeneity of sound of a string ensemble avoids the tempering of dissonances that you get with and orchestra. As a result you get even more of the “crunch” of the original piano version but heightened by the sustained tones of the strings: not unlike the organ, which, by the way, was a most effective causatum for the “The Great Gate of Kiev.” Cohen’s arrangement uses the whole gamut of string techniques (sul ponticello, harmonics, snap pizzicato, etc.) to inspired coruscating effect. Moreover, I especially like the highlighting of the violas, who, as with the entire ensemble, played like angels throughout the whole work.
As with most concerts of this nature there always seems to be the compulsory, specially commissioned “world premier.” And this was concert was no exception. And, as in countless other “premiers” the audience was privileged to endure yet another one of the countless unremarkable pieces which fall into the category of ho-hum contemporary banality. Such was Jessica Meyer’s meandering excessively ernest Grasping for Light. Unfortunately, Ms. Meyers felt compelled (or was compelled) to tell us all about her inspiration; essentially repeating what was already in the programme notes. Where do I begin? First, having the composer come out ahead of time to tell us about the piece is the equivalent of the usually inane “Artist’s Statement” associated with gratuitously inferior works in galleries. A musical composition should need no explanation; it either communicates to the listener or it doesn’t. Let’s just say Ms Meyer’s depression laden exegesis was not only redundant to the programme notes, but completely useless in determining the quality of the piece. Jae Cosmos Lee was offered the unfortunate opportunity of leading this time. At first I was heartened by the lyrical opening viola solo; but then, it quickly descended into a mass of special effects by the larger group. From there it was downhill. The composer’s ardour for description simply resulted in commonplace, directionless, aleatoric sounding piles of notes crescendoing to unison violins over rambling lower strings. The piece finally diminished to a single pianissimo high note conclusion on Mr. Lee’s violin. All in all, I’ve heard this piece countless times; i.e., it’s cliché. This is the type of writing that became all the rage in the 50’s through the 70’s; and, unfortunately, so many composers (customarily academics) today still consider as their ticket to immortality. The one saving grace Grasping for Light gave us was that it was only about five minutes long. I’m certain that the ensemble played it masterfully as they did with the rest of the programme; but, who knows and who cares?
Fortunately, the audience was cleansed by the beauty of Ottorino Respighi’s Trittico Botticelliano. This isn’t the Respighi of the Roman Trilogy in which huge resources and often frenzied demands are called upon the orchestra. This work is more in line with Ancient Airs and Dances or Church Windows. It’s an elegant work of sublime transparent textures and clear melodic polyphony reminiscent of the period which inspired the music. The piece calls for an expansion of the group with solo winds, harp, celeste, piano and percussion. It was Annie Rabbat’s good fortune to lead this time; and, not unlike her other colleagues, did a superb job. The one aspect of this performance was what can only be described as perfect balance. It could have been so easy for each of the solo instruments especially the trumpet, keyboards and percussion to overpower during full ensemble; however, everyone got it! From Bob Schulz’s extremely light touch with the triangle, trumpeter Michael Dobrinski’s exquisite dynamic control, to Hazel Dean Davis’ remarkable breath control in which she is required to play long, very quiet, sustained pedal tones beneath the ongoing counterpoint among the flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and strings. The subtlety of playing by everyone stood only to heighten what a masterful orchestrator Respighi was. Quite simply put, an extraordinary performance by the entire group.
No less can be said about the the deliciously sublime Mother and Child of William Grant Still under the admirable leadership of Megumi Lewis. Still is at last, finally, being recognised for more than just his Afro-American Symphony. A master at combining spirituals, jazz, blues melodies and harmonies and blending them with late 19th Century-early 20th Century textures and harmony, Still’s larger output has been long overdue for hearing. Mother and Child is quintessentially WGS. The melodic writing is graceful, the harmonies absolutely sumptuous. All I can add is the playing was equally sumptuous and so touching in the delicacy of each line. To get eighteen strings to sound like Eugene Ormandy’s Philadelphia Orchestra strings is the highest compliment I can give. Absolutely gorgeous.