Last night the local self-conducted string orchestra, A Far Cry, brought Cage, Schnittke, and Haydn to Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. The Criers, who serve as Resident Chamber Orchestra at the Gardner showed their creative spirit with an imaginative program and an innovative way of performing it. The concert, which was part of the Avant Gardner series, a “showcase for cutting-edge contemporary music”, was thought-provoking, captivating, and entertaining.
Michael Unterman, a cellist in the ensemble, nervously but charmingly delivered a short précis about the program he had designed, also explaining the changes in the lighting for each piece, part of the ensemble’s “experimenting with ways music is prepared, performed, and experienced.”
John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 Radios came first. The ensemble entered the hall fashionably in all black and took their positions around the radios, two to a radio—one to control the volume, the other to change the frequency dial. Part of the appeal of this piece is that it is always current, a representative sample of popular culture. The piece became an ironic satire on the commercialization of the holiday season as flamboyant advertisements were juxtaposed against Christmas carols. It is a prime example of Cage’s indeterminate music, in which each performance will likely yield extremely different results. The realization was effective though there were vastly different frequency responses among the different radios, some were bass heavy and muffled while others were harsh and treble-y; that made for a less uniform experience.
Cage composed The String Quartet in Four Parts by randomly consulting a chart of various musical gestures which he had earlier compiled. These individual kernels of sound, which could be snippets of folk tunes, isolated intervals, or flashy ornaments—performed without vibrato per the composer’s intention—were all beautiful by themselves. However, the interactions among these individual voices contextualized them in a way where each statement was made much more powerful—some repetitive motifs yearned to be heard while others, submissive and tired, finally resigned. Separated into four movements representing the four seasons, the piece was performed by four different quartets, positioned in each corner of the hall. The lights would intensely focus on the quartet currently performing while the rest of the hall would remain in darkness, effectively directing the listener’s attention.
After a brief pause the ensemble returned with 4’33”, perhaps Cage’s most well-known and controversial piece. Cage gained the confidence to write this “silent” piece after seeing Robert Rauschenberg’s all-white paintings which he said were “mirrors of the air.” The audience becomes just as important as the performers with 4’33’’ and so, Calderwood Hall, which does not have the traditional separation of audience and performers, became a powerful container for the piece. The lights grew dimmer with each “movement,” until at the end of the third, the conductor closed her book and the hall faded into complete darkness.
The Schnittke piece, Moz-Art à la Haydn, directly followed Cage’s meditation on the absence of sound, and it started in the same darkness on which the previous piece ended. A murmuring harmonic from the cello floated up through the tenebrosity gradually joined by other strings, each in their own world, playing quick repetitive motions. These repetitions build to an almost unbearable cacophony of sounds until suddenly the lights became brightly illuminated as the orchestra came together in a dissonant tremolo. The piece then moves on, casually picking up quotes from Mozart then dropping them almost as unexpectedly. Classical melodies are dished out with enthusiasm by the violins while relentless, vaguely tonal, pizzicatos in the cellos surround them before being apathetically abandoned mid-phrase, as if to say, “what’s the use?” Whereas Imaginary Landscape No.4 became a satire for a commercially saturated culture, the Schnittke was perhaps a comment on Western music, also saturated with content and a little tired out. In one last effort the violins angrily try to find a melody among 20th– century dissension before finally giving up and retiring to dissonant drones as the pizzicatos mock them with the derision with which audiences have too often greeted Darmstadtish experimentalism. The performers choreographed a few moves, changing positions at key moments of the piece before exiting while playing—Schnittke’s nod to Haydn.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 (Farewell), which closed out the evening, was performed with the house illumination almost completely absent. The players had a small light sources clipped to their stands, which made for a stunning display, as the circular light patterns interacted with each other and the performers’ shadows. It gave Haydn a slightly modern feel which kept it from seeming out of place on the program. As it concluded, the stand lights were extinguished one by one as players left the stage until there were just a few performers left to play the final notes. The house lights came on as the rest of the orchestra returned to a standing ovation.
A Far Cry does not need to fill any “new music quota” since they are gripped by the simple idea that contemporary music should be treated with the same respect and attention as the rest of the Western canon. While they experimented with the presentation, nothing in the evening came across as gimmicky or contrived, since their passion is genuine.