Boston’s A Far Cry, a youthful string ensemble of some 20 strong, opened the 2010-11 Sunday concert series at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, September 19. A Far Cry both amazes and exhausts. What commitment each player brings to this not-so-small-at-all ensemble should find media coverage nationally, so real and deep it goes. The group obviously wants to make a difference, which can be seen everywhere in its programming and heard in its instrumental performance. Today’s went from Henry Purcell through W.A. Mozart on up to Bela Bartók, still further up to Iannis Xenakis, and finally to Richard Cornell, a composer on the faculty of Boston University. As I witnessed last January in a concert in Jamaica Plain and again today, this young group (beginning only its fourth year in existence) is well on its way to defining a singular approach to interpreting string music.
“Criers,” as A Far Cry wishes to be known, also want very much to make immediate contact with their audience, ramping up electrical current with the net result of some wows mixed in with some whoas. That the criers alternate leaders as much as possible produces positive and some negative outcomes. In the early stages of their exploration into performance identity and audience connection — challenges many a soloist and ensemble seem to avoid — A Far Cry pulls off more than a few stunning moments. A conductor, though, might be helpful in guiding them toward finding much-needed variance in intensities, hierarchies of accenting, naturally contoured cadences, and, perhaps most of all, poetic expression.
Analogique A et B (1958-59) of Xenakis, with which ensemble began its Gardner program, exemplifies so much of A Far Cry’s belief that it can communicate something with “no melody, no harmony, no rhythm,” as one of its spokespeople remarked about the piece. Analogique A et B is a complex of fragments not emanating from a tradition of composition that would directly communicate with most listeners. The young string players, three violins, three cellos and three basses in all, met the huge demands of this cold and manufactured sonic outing. I thought that it would have been a totally absorbing six or so minutes had they not taken to making the surface sound as harsh as they did.
What they did communicate in Bartók’s masterpiece of string expression, Divertimento for String Orchestra, issued forth in the second movement marked “Molto adagio.” Short-long pulsations over a drone led us to a magnificent major harmony. Then, flappy-sounding low strings seemed to urge the rest of the orchestra onto some of the most unusually colored sounds I have ever heard from bowed instruments. Then came a Wow! They achieved a long, concentrated crescendo as big and fabulously terrifying as could be imagined.
Mozart’s Serenata Notturna, K. 239 had its moments. Funny or cute it was not. Henry Purcell’s The Old Bachelor was less uneven in its understanding of dance delivery than in slower tempi. Sadly, I was unable to catch more than a few of the well-timbered lute sounds emanating from a visually striking instrument. A Far Cry gave its best performance of the afternoon to its world premiere of Richard Cornell’s New Fantasias.
Having heard them perform last January, I attended their Gardner concert wondering what advances they had made in uncovering a greater range of expression in the diverse musical challenges they take on. Some harnessing, I believe, is in order. All in all, they have a lot going for them.