During construction of its new concert hall, and while the Tapestry Room is also undergoing renovation, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has exported its concert series to the Pozen Center in North Hall of the nearby Mass. College of Art — a room that was, once upon a time, the Girls’ Latin School auditorium. Its high ceiling, plaster walls, and neoclassical friezes stirred up apprehension over potentially cacophonous echoes, but in the context of A Far Cry’s February 6 performance, with piano soloist Joel Fan, these fears proved groundless, as the room enhanced the mellow string sound and left us, albeit in the fifth row, with no complaints over excessive blending.
The un-conducted sixteen-member standup ensemble’s program was an agreeably wide-ranging one, traversing 18th-, 19th-, and 21st-century works, of which the latter came first in the form of Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout by Gabriela Lena Frank. Frank, born and raised in California, has made her composing career so far by mining her multifarious ethnic heritage: Ashkenazi-American, Peruvian, and Chinese, but with a heavy emphasis on the Latin American connection (most of her works have Spanish titles). Leyendas is a suite written in 2001 for either string quartet or string orchestra, and focuses on styles and sounds from the west coast of South America, which of course includes her contributorily ancestral homeland. Of its six movements, five are varyingly uptempo and, except for the finale, draw from a very similar palette of melodic and harmonic colors — mostly pentatonic within a tonal framework, with occasional interesting microtonal bending. What truly stands out about this work is its brilliant string writing, with liberal use of not only standard pizzicato but Bartók pizzicato and some inventive sul ponticello pizzicato that yields a dry drumming sound. These sounds are skillfully combined with conventional playing, partly to suggest the blown, plucked and beaten sounds of native instruments, and partly for their own sake. The overall effect was well integrated in the musical whole and very seldom “just because I can.” The finale, by the way, was an exploration — fresh in its refurbished musical surroundings — of the Spanish Colonial influence that decades ago stood for the totality of Latin American music. It was fun to hear, in contrast to the evocation of pre-Columbian music that comprised most of the suite. The playing of the ensemble was exemplary. In the string orchestra implementation the first-chair players could provide brilliant solo turns; we particularly call out first violin Jae Cosmos Lee for some ethereal passages in harmonics in the second movement and cellist Alexei Gonzales for generally robust and impassioned playing.
The first half of this relatively short concert ended with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 11 in F major, K. 413, with Fan as soloist. Now, Mozart’s piano concertos generally have wind parts, and No. 11 is no exception. What our spies were able to ascertain was that, at the first rehearsal, the wind parts were assigned to whomever volunteered to play them —on strings, of course. No claim to authenticity, then, or deep musicological research, but so be it; we were not, in the event, severely discommoded by the ad hoc arrangement.
The performance was, by and large, excellent and idiomatic. As mentioned above, this ensemble (except, for obvious reasons, the cellos) adopts the Baroque orchestral practice of standing, which in addition to allowing the group to occupy less space abets the highly kinetic style that is its hallmark. While it is not absolutely essential for the music to bounce and that the musician do likewise, the body English certainly engages the audience in the spirit. Principal first violin for this piece (AFC rotates its players) Jesse Irons was definitely leader of the pack in this charming policy. Soloist Fan, who as a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble has developed a global renown, was apparently of the view that this concerto, not one of Mozart’s most frequently performed, should get a deeper, mellower treatment than one might think typical of the Mozart style — and indeed, this work is far less flashy than some others. We think he took it a bit too far in the first movement, with some smudgy sounds at the lower end of the keyboard. While this might have had something to do with the piano itself, a Steinway B furnished by the ISGM, we also noted a bit of heavy-handedness (though not heavy-footedness, as he did not over-pedal) in an effort to add literal as well as figurative depth. The cadenza, for example, seemed more Beethovenish in feeling than Mozartian. This problem was less evident in the slow movement and the minuet-tempo finale, which were dispatched with the stylish grace that defines the term “Mozartian.”
The official closer for the program was that quintessential warhorse of string orchestras, the Tchaikovsky Serenade in C, op. 47. It is, of course, a warhorse for a reason, for it is full of melody and great string sonorities, with a goodly dollop of compositional cleverness and a blessed minimum of the anguish and bathos that, for us anyway, diminish the aesthetic appeal of many other of his works. Characteristic of AFC’s performance was its close attention to phrasing and dynamics without losing the larger picture (e.g. the grandeur and grace of the opening movement) or the warm and rich massed string sound. We particularly noted some wonderful and supremely well-honed ensemble diminuendi at phrase ends in the second movement waltz, while the third movement elegy, the most typically Tchaikovskian part of the work, demonstrated a finely judged organic pacing. The finale, a joyful but craftily wrought knees-up on a Russian folk melody, showed the band in high spirits, with many knowing and appreciative glances exchanged among the players.
AFC, having played this program two days earlier in Jamaica Plain, was taking it on the road this week, and so as a parting gesture it produced a brief encore, a bonbon from William Walton’s score to Olivier’s film of Henry V, called “Touch her soft lips and part.” It was, as everything else was, shimmeringly done.