“If you haven’t purchased one already, now might be the time to get a ‘Criers do it standing up’ shirt,” joked bassist Tony Flynt before A Far Cry’s first concert of the season in their hometown of Jamaica Plain. These displays of DIY pragmatism and iconoclastic attitude have made this small conductor-less string chamber orchestra of hotshot young professionals into a hometown favorite for veterans of the Boston classical music scene and adventurous students and indie music fans alike, so it was no surprise that St. John’s Episcopal Church in JP was full on a beautiful Saturday afternoon (October 8th) at 5 PM, even though it was nearly impossible to banish thoughts of barbecuing during the last vestiges of summer instead of tolerating stuffy air and rock-hard pews for a lengthy program of classics. After but few bars of the opener, Lully’s Le Bougeois Gentilhomme, we remembered why we were all there. A Far Cry’s mixture of insightful programming, explosive virtuosity, boundless musical enthusiasm, and sheer will to sustain an independent ensemble in the face of inevitable financial adversity makes it one of Boston’s most vital ensembles.
Each season for the Criers sports an evocative title as does each concert throughout. The group named this season “Visions,” a play on the Roman numeral V, and the afternoon’s concert “Memories.” This, their second concert of the season following a late September Jordan Hall performance entitled “Divisions,” opened with Le Bougeois Gentilhomme, Lully’s contribution to a Comédie-ballet collaboration with Molière and choreographer Pierre Beauchamp. The group’s performance, with very little vibrato according to popular Baroque practice, processed with all the stately grace the piece requires, but underneath glossy violins, the cellos and basses set the piece in motion with punchy rhythm and lilt in the low-end. Violinist Megumi Stohs offered a whimsical and free solo, and the addition of a tambourine during the dance movements lent the performance an attractive historical quality.
Next the group tackled an ornery member of the string chamber music family, Beethoven’s Op. 95 String Quartet “Serioso,” in an arrangement for string orchestra by the Criers. Op. 95 is a mercurial piece, even for Beethoven, couched in extremes of tempo, texture, and mood. Despite some muddied articulation, perhaps due to the warm, rather reverberant acoustic of St. John’s, and despite the occasional intonation issue, A Far Cry offered an incendiary performance with a kaleidoscope of sounds and strong interpretive conviction. Terror marked the opening unisons and octave runs, but the Criers turned on a dime and the beautiful melodies that followed were drenched in melancholy. The second movement was a different world, lines visibly and audibly passing throughout the ensemble. The third movement tore free from the second with an aggressiveness that maintained rhythmic clarity in spite of its ferocity, and the fourth drew the piece to a virtuosic rousing close.
After the break, the ensemble performed two cornerstones of the string orchestra repertoire, but instead of shuttling out another cookie-cutter performance of pieces we’ve heard dozens of times, A Far Cry seized the opportunity to show off their polish and musical sensitivity. First came Respighi’s Ancient Airs and Dances, Book 3. Every movement was wonderfully shaped with an acute sense of phrase and structure. The ensemble’s quality of sound deepened further and grew richer and rounder, but also gained a wonderful blooming quality with glittering e-string treble during the more extroverted moments—never strident, only exalted. The violas played with especially sensitive ensemble and tone in their solos during the Arie di corte movement. The Dvorak String Serenade that followed was equally detailed and exciting, with Criers exchanging glances, swaying with the music, and smiling at each other and the audience. This was the kind of performance that reminds you: there is a reason Dvorak’s Serenade is played so frequently. It’s beautiful!
A Far Cry returns to Jordan Hall on February 24, 2012 for a performance of Shostakovich, Jones, and Adams. A generous anonymous donor has agreed to match all donations made by new donors to the group during the month of October by 200%.