Ladies and Gentlemen, Classical Music is not dead. At least not as long as musicians with the skill level, enthusiasm, and musical intelligence of A Far Cry are out there. The eighteen string players who comprise the conductor-less ensemble played what must rank with the most exciting and important programs of this season for the lucky folks that were present at Sunday’s performance (June 12) at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. The performance took place in the Shalin Liu Performance Center, and a whole review could be devoted the beauty and acoustics of this amazing venue. For those who have yet to see it, the exterior of the year-old building nods to the Second Empire style, a building that fits into its historic location with no difficulty, but the interior has been transformed into a serene, organic performance space that could as easily be a Zen garden. The walls are of uneven stone tiles, in colors that mirror the rocks in the harbor, and the reason you know this is because the entire back wall of the stage is glass, which gives a breathtaking view of the sea outside. Without the discomfort of being outside, (the chairs are very comfortable), you feel you are, as seagulls fly by, and the sky and water change color constantly. The hall alone would be worth a visit, but the level of performances taking place make it an absolute must-see/hear destination.
In this setting, the thoughtfully conceived program presented by A Far Cry made an even greater impact. It is a quip among musicians that good performers will save a bad conductor, and that bad performers can ruin a good conductor; in the case of A Far Cry, the conductor is the collective will of the ensemble. They play together with astonishing unity of thought, gesture and concept. Even to the detail of bow stroke length. Yet, nothing is mechanical. There is subtlety in dynamics, in tempo changes, and great passion when called for.
The concert opened with a lively, up-tempo version of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 in G major. The ensemble was divided in a very interesting manner — three trios of violin, viola and cello with the bass in the middle — so that the interchange between parts led to visual as well as aural interest. For the next piece, Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra, Sz. 13, the full eighteen members came on stage. The players rotated from first to second violin, from principal to second stand and so on – there are no “second fiddles” in this ensemble. They are all equally important.
The piece is in three movements, Allegro non troppo, Molto Adagio, and Allegro Assai. The acoustics of the hall supported an extremely soft, but still menacing pianissimo in the second movement, which sounded simultaneously other-worldly and threatening. The third movement, a raucous Hungarian barn dance alternating with fugal sections and a Baroque, pizzicato dance really showed how remarkable it was that this ensemble played with no conductor.
After intermission, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which never gets old, was performed with a stately dignity, passionate without being corny. There was also sense that these musicians recognize the value of silence as an equal partner with sound. The “blank” measure was not dead space, nor was the exceptionally long pause at the end before the audience was allowed to express their applause.
The program ended with the sprightly and astonishing String Symphony No. 7 in d minor, written when Mendelssohn was not yet ffiteen years old. In four short movements, it shows a level of skill and knowledge of form that is truly remarkable in one so young. Again, the pairing with the opening Bach made musical sense, as all the large works on the program illustrated some aspect of driving rhythm, though each composer’s voice clearly shines through in the different harmonic language employed.
This would have been a wonderful performance if it had stopped there; but like the wine at Cana, the best was yet to come. After a standing ovation, the musicians arranged themselves to play an encore. And what an encore. I later learned that the piece was Turceasca, a gypsy band tune originally played by Taraf de Haidouks, arranged for the group by Lev Zhurbin (Ljova) and Osvaldo Golijov. It started with a wailing gypsy violin (played with abandon by Sharon Cohen), and went from there, in a wild, Rumanian hoe-down/jam band bacchanale that came close to blowing the roof off. There was acoustic slapping of the cellos, a wandering bass player jamming with a fiddle, extended solos from various members, and a whirling, dizzying frenzy of outstanding playing. I defy any school child to think that playing in a rock band could hold a candle to this.
Bottom line: this is a group to be watched and listened to.
Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.