in: Reviews

February 28, 2012

Sterling Qualities of A Far Cry

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The enterprising chamber orchestra that calls itself A Far Cry (and its members “Criers”) showed off its sterling qualities on February 24th in Jordan Hall in a program of music from the last half century: two relatively familiar pieces and a world premiere. Each of the ensemble’s programs is suggested by a player in the group and, after vetting by the others, selected democratically by the players themselves. In this instance, the moving force was double bass player Karl Doty, who proposed a centerpiece composed by Kip Jones, a violinist whom he had known since childhood in Duluth, Minnesota, and with whom he has formed a chamber duo called K2 (which evokes the world’s second-highest mountain while also suggesting the initials of their two names). Jones has composed many pieces for the duo, and he wrote a double concerto to feature them in this concert. As bookends surrounding the new concerto, he proposed music by Shostakovich and John Adams.

The Chamber Symphony, Op. 110a, of Shostakovich is an arrangement by Rudolf Barshai (with the composer’s approval) of his most famous 1960 string quartet, No. 8 in C minor, an intensely personal work that intersperses references to the composer’s musical motto, DSCH (S is E-flat;  H is B natural) with brief excerpts from many of his compositions, all borne on a generally pensive and poignant thread of lamentation. The feeling of utter loneliness that the work can create is stronger, perhaps, when played by a string quartet with just one instrument on a part; but A Far Cry has such remarkable unanimity of ensemble and expressiveness (especially remarkable in a conductor-less ensemble, bespeaking many hours of rehearsal) that the moods of the piece, from the most delicate thread of single lines to the chilling thrice-repeated dissonant chords that supposedly evoke the middle-of-the-night knock on the door by the KGB, were fully projected.

Kip Jones’s Three Views of a Mountain: concerto for violin, double bass, and string orchestra was about as different from the Shostakovich work as could be imagined. An interview published in the Intelligencer here provided an advance hint of the kind of thing that would be happening in the piece. The two soloists, violin and double bass, are usually differentiated in character from the larger string ensemble, though they play together as a pair more often than not. Kip Jones studied in Boston at the Berklee School of Music, where he quite naturally included jazz in his experience. Later he traveled widely and studied improvisatory techniques in India, Korea, and South America. All of these elements fuse in a lively and joyous work, full of energy and colorful string sonorities that brought the audience to its feet at the end.

The concerto is in the traditional three movements, fast-slow-fast. The composer describes the central movement as “the experience itself” of a kind of unsteady heartbeat, based on an unnamed folk song (or perhaps just a melody in a folk style) animated by a complex irregular rhythmic pulsation. On either side of it, the faster movements are conceived (not in any obvious way) as climbing and descending the mountain, respectively.

The concerto begins with the two soloists setting up a rhythmically active syncopated figure on repeated single notes — suggesting traditional elements of classic minimalism. The orchestra enters with a quiet but dense series of chords that expand and contract like a sigh behind the energy of the soloists. These two fundamental elements move around among the various performers, both soloists and orchestral sections, unfolding kaleidoscopically between solo instruments and groups. At one point I was taken aback at the thought that I had never heard a violin sound that was so utterly vocal in its sustained, sweet quality — only to realize with some surprise that the players were also singing along with their parts in certain spots. This set up a wonderful aura in the string-orchestra sonority. It came and went during the piece, but once heard and identified, the listener continues to suspect it even when it is not there. (When the soloists, as the duo K2, gave an encore after the concerto, another of Kip Jones’s pieces, they also sang extensively during their duo, so it was clear that this is a regular element of Jones’s composition.)

Three Views of a Mountain is fun to listen to, though no doubt intricate to perform (especially with the added challenge of singing along with a stringed instrument, a technique that is not, so far as I know, a part of standard conservatory training). It is a work that I look forward to hearing again. Happily, the performance was recorded.

The program ended with the work that first put John Adams on the map, his Shaker Loops, written for solo strings in 1978, then expanded in 1983 for string orchestra. (The Boston Symphony introduced it to local audiences about that time.) This is the most traditionally minimalist piece that one has much chance to hear in Adams’s output, because he expanded his conception of the style rather quickly and radically, so that, despite the frequent note repetitions (often at high speed), and the sense of melodic loops (derived from the manipulation of small pieces of recorded sound that first appeared in musique concrète a half century ago) built up in overlapping structures to produce varying textures and sonorities as musical objects in themselves, his later music is much more varied and complex.

The score of Shaker Loops would be tricky enough with a conductor, but for A Far Cry it requires very careful counting on the part of every single player. The four movements of the work include two vigorous “shaking” outer movements surrounding two that include more sustained thematic ideas “looped” and special effects. The focused concentration built a heart-pumping excitement.

As an encore, A Far Cry offered a string arrangement of Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”), originally for piano, a gentle work that acts as a cool-down from the vigorous exercise, to slow the rapid heartbeats of players and audience alike.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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