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Musical Happening at Avant Gardner


A Far Cry Rehearses in Calderwood Hall (BMInt staff photo)
A Far Cry Rehearses in Calderwood Hall last year (BMInt staff photo)

The eclectic mix of A Far Cry’s “Folly” included a world premiere by Shaw Pong Liu, Geminiani played on carbon fiber instruments, Brett Dean’s take on Carlo Gesualdo, and a rhapsody by Mason Bates. To these disparate works the Criers brought their now-expected level of dedication and prowess last night at the Gardner Museum.

The evening began with the world premiere of Shaw Pong Liu’s Arise, for 18 String Players of A Far Cry (2013). The composition, commissioned by A Far Cry, was sponsored by Eric and Margaret Darling, the parents of Crier violinist Sarah Darling. This new piece is site and player specific, making use of the space of Calderwood Hall and also the individual vocal ranges of players in A Far Cry. It began before the audience arrived and continued for about thirty minutes after the start of the concert. Musicians were on all levels of the hall, and some audience members were seated on zabutons in the central space of the performance level. What one heard would vary with seating (I was on the first balcony, mid-row.) The composer (in the program note) explains the structure thus:

a pre-concert prelude of birdsongs; a dialogic alternation between birds and growing bass; a text-based groove that moves from busy-ness to chaos (using verbal phrases transcribed from the Criers, including the melodic contour and rhythm of their speech); and an extended melodic unfurling.

The first part, especially, draws on her A Bird a Day (more here), and seeks to combine birdsong with music. So this composition takes its place in the long tradition of Western music that tries to capture avian melodies—from the fascination with the rossignol spanning Renaissance to contemporary periods (at least), to Mozart’s pet starling who repeated the composer’s melody but modulated it to a minor modality to Olivier Messiaen. That hasty sketch of a lineage characterizes three further aspects: transcription, modulation, and spirituality. The prelude, at times, included highly accurate transcriptions of birdsong. These musical fragments were modulated into larger phrases, and too spoken words were modulated into musical cells. The spirituality is not Messiaen’s Roman Catholicism but a Buddhism aiming to counteract the “stressed-out ‘monkey’ mind” with a “calm mind” (again the composer’s words). The acceleration and stress of “monkey mind” comes through in the third section, where Criers provided the composer with those phrases that most run through their minds in times of stress. While playing they vocalized these phrases; spoken words became rhythmic and melodic phrases, became musical fragments (bowed, not said). I’ve never been a fan of vocalizing while playing (I don’t know why), but I love the effect of speech-patterns rendered into music—as here, or Reich’s “Different Trains.” My personal reaction was the same here: cringe led to thrill. The busy-ness of this section also recalled scores to urban scenes in 1920s films, climaxing into a moment that resembled Tourette’s Syndrome in music. This is a composition that would repay a second hearing; the ideas are carefully crafted with connections across the sections of the work.

There followed a pause to re-set the performance space, before the start of Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso no. 12 in d, Variations on “La Follia.” The string players performed on a matching set of carbon fiber instruments loaned by Luis and Clark. (The company is based in Milton, MA, and these instruments are made in Bristol, Rhode Island and Luis Leguia, formerly a cellist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is their inventor and designer.) You can read about the choice of carbon fiber string instruments for this performance of Geminiani on A Far Cry’s blog, here. Carbon fiber instruments have wonderful sound potential; in my very limited experience with a carbon fiber cello, they also have greater possibilities for projection and volume than traditional wooden instruments. The latter was the only problem in this performance of the Geminiani, where traditional wooden harpsichord met carbon fiber stringed instruments. The harpsichord playing the continuo line was overwhelmed. (Might an L&C harpsichord soon appear on the market?) As for the strings, individual notes in rapid runs were more present, clearer, than one often hears. That worked nicely in these La Folia variations, emphasizing the familiar and recurring tune and allowed for greater reverb than one usually hears—here used to great effect on some final notes of sections.

Continuing with the idea of folly (or, stronger, madness), the next work on the program was Brett Dean’s Carlo: Music for Strings, Sampler and Tape (1997). A commission by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, this work combines the music of Carlo Gesualdo with Dean’s musical narration. Even Gesualdo will have his day: resurging interest in his music combines with new explorations of his tumultuous life and murders, while last year’s novel “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer” by Wesley Stace brought this story of rock music excess in the world of Renaissance polyphony to new audiences. (Alex Ross gives a nice summary of Gesualdo—man, music, and madness—here.) Dean’s work opened with tape: a recording of Gesualdo’s Moro lasso from his sixth book of madrigals. From this sixteenth-century chromaticism the string players bring us to twentieth-century soundscapes. Some found this work mesmerizing. For my part, I found it a meta-commentary on the very fact of the existence of Gesualdo, man and composer.

The fourth and final work on this program was Mason Bates, Icarian Rhapsody for String Orchestra (1999). This composition is lyrical and rhapsodic—soaring (both the music and Icarus). Bates takes advantage of a string orchestra’s possibility for unending lyrical phrasing, here to great effect. The work combines a range of sounds and musical techniques, beautifully so. A Far Cry gave a wonderful reading. As the waves of arpeggios which ended this work diminished, Icarus faded.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, 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.

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