Some 12th-century plainchant by a nun as famous for her religious visions as her sacred compositions, 21st-century meditations on both Islamic and Jewish conversations with God, and a musical prayer of thanks from Beethoven to the Almighty: heavy stuff for a Saturday afternoon! Somehow, rather than seeming ponderous, A Far Cry’s “Dreams and Prayers” program at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain remained spirited as well as spiritual. (It repeats today in an officially sold-out performance at 1:30pm at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall.)
True, the sight of 18 young, passionate musicians from Boston joining to perform such a wide repertoire raised spirits from the outset. Yet it was also exciting to hear that supposedly non-musical consideration turn into an undeniable musical catalyst. Opening with an arrangement of O Ignis Spiritus Paracliti (“Oh Comforting Spirit of Fire”) by Hildegard von Bingen’s (1098-1179), with nine violins playing plainchant over a two-viola pedal could have easily turned monotonous. Instead of mechanical symmetry or self-indulgent variation, the 10 instrumental stanzas turned into an opportunity to reflect, and absorb the instruments’ bright tone and tight but organic blend. This was an inventive choice by a group of musicians digging beyond simple surfaces.
That sensitivity as well as a sense of drive made two such supposedly different soundscapes as those of Mehmet Ali Sanlikol (born 1974) and Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) seem like two lenses into the same experience. A Far Cry commissioned Vecd, a one-movement interpretation of Sufi musical forms and religious practices from Turkish composer Sanlikol back in May. Despite the fast commission and beyond the work being written especially for this ensemble, it was hard to imagine Sanlikol’s rhythmic cycles and subtle placement of his native land’s harmonies receiving a more natural reading. Starting with just a soft trill, several concise themes circled the string orchestra, featuring each section’s distinct sound on top of a firm bass. By the final long-sustained chord, the work seemed neither happy, sad, contented nor yearning — just overwhelmed by much larger thoughts.
In light of Vecd, the third movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, op. 132 also spoke to unspoken reflections. It alternates between a serene, slow chorale and a faster, more assertive second theme, which then repeat and expand throughout the course of the movement. The “Convalescent” mentioned in the subtitle “Holy Song of Thanks By a Convalescent to the Divinity in the Lydian Mode” is Beethoven himself, expressing a range of thoughts and emotions after surviving an abdominal illness.
In an arrangement for string orchestra, A Far Cry’s sheer singularity of tone and approach allowed the same intimacy and lightness of the original quartet setting. More string colors emerged, such as the second violins and violas layering over one another in rich hues or the beautiful cantabile asides in the cellos (though the first violins were marred by some pitch issues). The first theme repeated with widening sweep, and the second theme closed on an elegant sense of triumph, with the coda taking on especially dramatic weight. Seeing the Criers smiling, bobbing their heads, closing their eyes, listening pensively and otherwise thrilling to these and other moments only added to the experience.
The players obviously enjoyed guest soloist David Krakauer’s explosive clarinet playing in Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind by Osvaldo Golijov (born 1960). Like the Beethoven piece, Golijov’s 1994 work was originally written for a string quartet alongside the clarinet, with Golijov speaking to the joy, searching, and solemnity of the Jewish tradition throughout its five movements.
Unfortunately, the composer’s arrangement for string orchestra actually allowed the clarinet to dominate at the expense of ensemble balance and cohesion. While A Far Cry provided pew-shaking rhythmic figures and some evocative harmonies behind Krakauer (for example their stalking introduction to the third movement), Golijov’s work more often seemed like a waste of these voices, with the multi-hued strings reduced to a big, rowdy accompaniment to a singer at a wedding. Krakauer’s exaggerated volume and inflections, along with an unusually fuzzy, diaphanous chalumeau and acerbic high notes, in turn drew too much attention to the soloist as soloist, rather than an integrated part of a narrative. Admittedly one listener’s idea of “mannered” may be another’s idea of “passionate.” Yet if Saturday’s program revealed anything, it’s that both celebration and solemnity draw upon a variety of forces and feelings.