This afternoon, A Far Cry, the resident chamber orchestra at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, gave a wonderfully eclectic two-hour-long concert in the museum’s Calderwood Hall. The program ranged from mid-17th-century Johann Heinrich Schmelzer to Berg and Schoenberg, with pianist Markus Schirmer joining in for a reading of a Mozart piano concerto. It was a privilege to be present for this thrilling concert.
A Far Cry is not a traditional chamber orchestra; Calderwood Hall is not a traditional concert hall. In this setting the proximity between musicians and listeners returns us to the experience of chamber music in salons and private spaces. No elevated stage or proscenium arch separates one from the musical conversation. There is something gratifying about being able to feel the vibrations of sound waves at quieter dynamics and to participate in the interactions among musicians only a few feet away.
The concert began with Schmelzer’s Balletto à 4“Fechtschule” (Fencing School), dating from the mid-17th-century. From the gallant opening of Aria 1, this Balletto passes on to the slowly flowing theme of Aria 2, the tender Sarabande, traipsing Courente, marcato and martial Fechtschule with flying passagework, and calm Bader Aria. The music encompassed a wide range of dance postures, rhythms, colors, and dynamics, yet remarkably only one melodic phrase forms the core of the Balletto. I was seated on the performance level, behind Ben Katz on harpsichord, who was realizing the keyboard continuo part in real-time; all the more reason I regret not fully hearing it — the only acoustic drawback in the concert. Perhaps those seated in the balconies heard the harpsichord better than I. I was also intrigued by Michael Unterman’s use of a sheet of the paper underneath the cello strings to produce a distinctive, muted yet marked, sound. What was old became new in this performance of Schmelzer — a fitting opening to this concert.
The program then jumped forward three centuries, as A Far Cry performed the second, third, and fourth pieces from Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite (1925-1926). We now know this Suite encodes Berg’s passionate, if adulterous, liaison with Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, which began about the same time as he composed this music. Their initials form the signature motif of the work and are most prominent in the third movement. We heard part of this affair, beginning with the second movement, Andante amoroso, a lovely piece of lyricism from a composer more often associated with prickly harmonics. The atypical intervals of dodecaphony remain, but a lush harmony marks this movement as well, together with moments of great tenderness and yearning. The Allegro misterioso – Trio estatico is played muted and uses col legno bowing and rapid passagework played sul ponticello and quietly, giving the effect of cicadas and shimmering light in the heat of summertime. The Adagio appassionato combines fire and lyricism to express the range of passion from piano with quiet intensity to rich, overarching forte. A Far Cry gave us the less ethically challenging or morally vexing parts of Berg’s testament to his affair; their selection of movements was an enticement to Berg’s world which balanced the Schoenberg later on the program without losing sight of the Schmelzer or Mozart.
Pianist Markus Schirmer joined A Far Cry for Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 13 in C, K. 415. This concerto began with the subtlest pianissimo, a mere hint of music, and a dynamic rarely heard in large-scale concert-hall performances: 16 string players gathered around the piano and in constant communication with one another, united as one to realize this quiet beginning. The sound built to a robust forte, presenting a piano entrance both subtle and magisterial. Schirmer played very much as a member of the ensemble, not the soloist leading an orchestra. In collaboration Schirmer and A Far Cry matched articulations, phrases, and carefully defined dynamics across the whole spectrum of sound. The Andante was a movement of polished loveliness, and the Allegro-Rondeau a study in subtle yet precise repetition and variation ending in a piano dynamic recalling the concerto’s opening. The engagement, commitment, and sheer enjoyment of the musicians in the performance brought this work to life and made Mozart feel like a première. Schirmer returned to the stage and treated us to a heartfelt encore from a fellow native of Graz: Franz Schubert’s Grazer Galopp, D.925.
After a brief pause, A Far Cry rounded out this concert with Schoenberg’s Suite for String Orchestra (1934), a tonal essay of a Baroque suite amalgamating old and new which could only come from the 20th century. The Overture began with a bold statement, followed by contrapuntal fugetti and enough dissonance to remind us that we have left behind the world of Schmelzer, continuing with moments of a quiet peace filled with warmth and humanity. I was reminded of Jean Sibelius, specifically his Andante festivo: both composers share overlapping lifetimes but usually inhabit disparate sound-worlds. The Suite never lost its rosy glow as the movements danced along, brandishing quirky charms aplenty. The Gavotte stood out for its richly resonant viola line, beautifully rendered by Jason Fisher. Schoenberg’s variegated Suite showcased the protean talents of A Far Cry beautifully.