The string ensemble A Far Cry demands no introduction to Boston audiences. Now in its sixth year, the ensemble currently serves as the chamber orchestra in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and has already released three CDs and ventured upon a European tour. At Jordan Hall the fleet 21-member (including guest artists) conductor-less ensemble presented works by Britten, Webern, Weill and a newly commissioned piece by Tufts professor John McDonald. Titled Long Gaze, this was the first program of two that the Criers will play at NEC’s Jordan Hall this season. On Friday evening they brought an engaging program to life in a superbly sensitive and stimulating performance.
The evening began with the late Ruth Gessner Schocken’s commission from McDonald. Schocken, who died in 2012, was an avid supporter of the ensemble, and McDonald’s Gentle but Uneasy Dance Music was written in her memory. The work is simultaneously pensive yet affable, using spare orchestration to highlight miniature motives. Divided into four parts, it starts with a Lanterne—a short piece that imitates the shape of a Japanese lamp—followed by a brief dance interlude meant as an “empathic musical offerings” to its dedicatee. This is followed by the two central movements of the work, Suite Within a Suite, and the Mid-Suite Intensive, a meditation on the notes A, G, and E that Schocken had earlier commissioned during her 95th year. The piece concludes in a return to the Lanterne motif. McDonald’s offering fared exquisitely on Friday evening in the hands of an ensemble that managed to imbue the spare work with a depth and richness that made it accessible.
McDonald’s minimalism was in stark contrast to Britten’s Les Illuminations, which he set to Arthur Rimbaud’s poetry to music during his time abroad in New York City. It sparkles with the excitement and adventure of youth abroad, borrowing new colors and ideas from Debussy and timidly venturing into the more profane genres of jazz and Broadway. Les Illuminations thrilled in the hands of the Criers—an accelerating tempo combined with an impressive cohesion enlivened the bright colors and youthful ideals of both Rimbaud’s poetry and Britten’s music. Tenor Zachary Wilder and soprano Kristen Watson joined the ensemble for the song cycle. Both are considerable young talents who came off impressively on Friday evening. Wilder thrilled with tenorial heroics and almost belligerent enunciation during the faster movements; the slower movements —particularly the ponderous Being Beauteous—by contrast, gave scope to his intensely sensitive lyric impulse which evinced his understanding of Britten and Rimbaud. None of this is to diminish Watson’s accomplishments—she was nothing less than radiant in her upper ranges and presented a rich lower register. Watson was also dramatic in the more declamatory movements, revealing a fiery coloratura. But she could also produce gorgeously long, sustained melodic lines. Particularly in Phrase, Watson’s voice was positively arresting.
Despite the remarkable first half, what followed was even more moving: Anton Webern’s 1905 String Quartet, adapted for string orchestra. The work catches Webern before his turn to 12-tone style, revealing his intense study of Wagner, Mahler, Strauss and early Schoenberg (more than once, one can hear a bird flitting straight out of Verklärte Nacht into Webern’s quartet). The work is steeped in melancholy, tenuously beginning with a solo violin and gradually incorporating the rich timbres of the lower strings into dark, late-romantic harmonies. This sound fared exceptionally well in the extended numbers of the ensemble, which was able to draw additional color from Webern’s score by strategically marking solo or small-ensemble passages. More than in Webern’s four-instrument version, this read enhanced the late-romantic harmonies, colors and, ultimately, optimism of a young composer writing in a confident and idealistic fin-de-siècle Vienna.
To follow this turn-of-the-century confidence with Kurt Weill’s mid-century Broadway songs on Friday somehow tacitly evokes the tragedies that transpired in the intervening years. None of this is explicit, of course: Nicholas Urie’s settings of five Weill songs (That’s Him, Lonely House, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Bilbao Song, and Speak Low) for string orchestra are masterful fun. Urie tempered the edgy harmonic play of Weill’s score and the wry wit of the texts for the new medium. Wilder and Watson returned to the stage with playful, dramatic reads of these songs, fit for any Broadway stage. But we laugh to forget: this is music composed by a Jewish composer fleeing Germany in the 1930’s. Despite the playful creaks and grumbles in Lonely House, it is hard not to read the awful kernel of truth in the closing lyric: I’m lonely in this lonely house/In this lonely town; despite the high vaudeville in Bilbao Song, there is no little poignancy to the reminiscing for the vanished old life; most touching, despite the classic love song that is Speak Low, there is a haunting truth to the feelings of loss and regret.
The message certainly wasn’t lost on the audience. They saluted this deeply meaningful achievement with a fine ovation.