Last night, the string ensemble A Far Cry, joined by David Deveau, piano, and Andrés Cárdenes, violin, took to the Shalin Liu Performance Center stage as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival. They filled the small stage and the jewel-box hall resounded with passionate and lovely music.
The concert began with Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae (2002), in an arrangement made by A Far Cry. In this 14-minute work Golijov drew inspiration from the Holy Week Tenebrae liturgical service, in which light is progressively extinguished, and especially from François Couperin, Troisième Leçon de Tenebrae (from which he lifted some melismata). Theologically, Golijov encodes both crucifixion and resurrection in this piece: the music dies out to a moment of still nothingness, then resurrects itself from the beginning again. This “Tenebrae” is secular, for a modern concert-hall and in Ordinary Time (as the liturgical calendar would have it), rather than a highly defined and ritualized work for sacred space during Lent. It was still bright evening when the concert began; pity this work was not programmed for an hour later as dusk overtook the hall. It would have heightened the transcendental experience.
Eighteen Criers gave a captivating performance of this lush and polyphonic work. The music draws on a range of techniques and musical idioms (in addition to Couperin, there is also Vivaldi, and the polyrhythms made me think of Ravel); multiple divisi heighten the polyphony. Jason Fisher gave a fabulously rich reading of the cantorial viola line. A Far Cry’s arrangement for string orchestra of Golijov’s composition is very effective and powerful, adding power and depth to this already weighty piece in a fashion wonderfully consonant with the original composition.
From darkness to light: David Deveau took the stage with A Far Cry for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.14 in E-flat, K. 449. A Far Cry, being a string ensemble, performed this work without Mozart’s optional pair of oboes and horns; I did not notice their omission in this performance. What I did notice was David Deveau’s wide range of touch and tone in the solo piano line and his beautiful use of the piano’s resonance, balancing that of the string ensemble. The second movement, Andantino, was stately, almost courtly. This was not light Mozart at all; the movement became the composition’s center of gravity. The Allegro finale had slower, quasi-meditative, moments recalling the middle movement. Throughout its reading of this work, A Far Cry and Deveau performed with passion and forward motion, never losing sight of the overarching structure nor rushing through the phrases and together gave a unique and compelling reading of this concerto.
Following intermission, 19 criers took to the stage, now with Andrés Cárdenes, violin, for Vivaldi’s Concerto in D, op. 4, no. 11, RV 204, from the volume of concerti named La Stravaganza. This concerto, some six minutes in duration, presents in miniature a complete sound-world and a variety of musical characteristics along with harmonic and technical innovations. The opening Allegro showcased the bell-like tone of Cárdenes with the incisive playing and collaboration of Megumi Stohs in a lovely duet. The middle Largo was a nuanced, sensitive, and wholly gorgeous collaboration between Cárdenes and the basso continuo – Michael Unterman on cello, and (I believe; names are not listed in the program and A Far Cry’s website is not up-to-date) Leon Schelhase on harpsichord. These three musicians performed a chamber music concert within the larger program, with glorious results.
Cárdenes remained with A Far Cry for “Invierno” (Winter) and “Otoño” (Autumn) from Piazzolla’s Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas, here performed in an arrangement by Leonid Desyatnikov. This arrangement heightens the Baroque nature of any violin concerto based on the seasons by including more of Vivaldi’s 18th-century Italy in the tango-inflected portrait of Buenos Aires. I thought “Invierno” explored wider musical territory than the more familiar (to me) tangos, yet still within an idiom recognizable as Piazzolla. I also heard definite relations between these Estaciones Porteñas and his Ángel series of tangos, showcasing the extent to which, as a composer, he expanded the Argentine musical idiom. Michael Unterman on cello performed a soulful and sultry solo matching that of Cárdenes. Autumn and winter here have never felt so warm, and the verve and languor of the music made up for the chilly night.
A Far Cry took the stage alone for the final work on the concert: Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10. Written in the span of two months when the composer was 23, this work presents a character portrait of Britten’s teacher, with different variations emphasizing Bridge’s charm, vitality, humor, or enthusiasm. The result is a suite of variations, each with a different and defining characteristic, and a testament to Britten’s considerable compositional skills. The ensemble gave a tightly coherent reading of this dense and tricky work, all the more remarkable without a conductor to cue and guide them. A Far Cry reveled in the spirit of these variations, the sweeping melodies and the opulent harmonies. In the end, it presented a portrait of itself, as well as one of Bridge viewed by Britten: an energetic ensemble, masters of wide-ranging instrumental technique, sensitive musicians all who easily span the spectrum of musical expression and are equally comfortable playing several centuries’ worth of music.
Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.