The object of the exercise, the violinist said, was to explore the night—its moods and implications, and our responses. Well, that was one of the objects of A Far Cry’s April 21st concert at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, at any rate—another was to collaborate with flute soloist Paula Robison. Like all overarching themes used to generate a concert program (and, more often, its publicity), it underwent a bit of stretching before its offering of works by Mozart, Vivaldi, Foote, Saariaho and Borodin was over and we stepped back out into the bright sunshine of mid-afternoon.
Some things are pretty obvious. AFC began with Mozart’s Serenade in G, K. 525, better—that is, universally—known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik. There is no need for any remark on the piece, of which even in this culturally bereft age everyone can hum the opening twenty bars or so. The conductorless string ensemble gave it a robust, brisk, generally vigorous reading, with well-judged contrasts in dynamics and pacing. The minuet was especially gratifying in its attention to Mozart’s barline-bridging rhythms and in the sweetness concertmaster (for this piece) Jesse Irons brought to his solo in the trio.
Among the six bajillion concertos Antonio Vivaldi wrote (actually, more like half a thousand, give or take a bajillion), twenty are recorded in the Ryom catalogue as for transverse flute and strings. Robison, facing the orchestra in the conductor’s position, led a performance of the G minor concerto, R. 439, subtitled “La Notte.” Dating from 1729, it is a rescoring of R. 104 for flute, violins and bassoon. As concertos go, this is a bit of an oddity: it is in six “movements” of alternating slow and fast that are really more like short sections of a tightly knit unity. The expressive range is extreme even for Vivaldi, with many dramatic pauses, some bravura sound effects (for example the exaggerated saltando bowing in the fourth movement), and an eerie stasis and quietude in the fifth movement, subtitled “sleep” (the sleep of the just, evidently). Robison displayed her usual impeccable technique and sound artistic judgment in all of this, with a tightly controlled vibrato and supreme mastery of breath, dynamics and phrasing. Granted, some of the overblowing in the frantic final Allegro rang a bit metallic, but hers was clearly a grand master’s command. The orchestral accompaniment, full of its own virtuosity, was every bit as solid.
To finish the first half of the program, Robison returned with Arthur Foote’s A Night Piece, one of his most popular works. Originally composed for flute and string quartet as a standalone movement, possibly a meditation on the eponymous Wordsworth poem that was read out before the performance, Foote afterwards paired it with a rescoring of the scherzo from his second string quartet and published it in 1918 as Nocturno and Scherzo. It reveals its composer (who was not just “a local composer from 100 years ago,” per the introduction from the floor, but one of America’s most eminent late-Romantic composers, who happened to be from Massachusetts) at both his most lyrical and most harmonically and structurally subtle. Robison’s tone and phrasing were exquisite in its long-breathed main melody, and she made the return to the principal section (considerably altered) a thrilling pianissimo.
The second half began with Kaija Saariaho’s 2001 Nymphéa Reflection, a rescoring and partial recomposing of her 1987 Nymphéa for string quartet and electronics. Saariaho is often associated with the so-called “spectralist” school of Grisey and Murail, and true to that influence this six-sectioned piece (the sections here being actually more like movements than the nominal movements of the Vivaldi) focuses more on the quality of the sound than on overt elements of melody and harmony. Like its progenitor, this piece is a reflection on a poem by Arseny Tarkovsky; it is recited within the piece by the players in the last movement, but for textural rather than textual purposes, as it is whispered in a way that defeats parsing the words. The poem was printed in the program and read aloud before the performance, but while we’ll have to take the composer’s word for it that the music derives from the poem, our testimony here is that there’s nothing particularly nocturnal about it. The introduction from the floor suggested that AFC saw this as the “nightmare scenario” within their program theme; we decline to comment further.
The music itself, which we adjudge to have been expertly performed by AFC (sonic balances aside, these having been skewed for us, as they were unskewed for half of the audience, by the players’ change of position to face the opposite diagonal of Calderwood Hall for the second half), is essentially gestural and, as noted, textural. Beginning with a grating timbre bordering on scraping, the sections variously pursue cluster sonorities fanning out from unisons (very prettily notated, as we could see over the violists’ shoulders), avian chirping or perhaps distant seagull calls, microtonal mists somewhat reminiscent of late Ives; violent, stabbing attacks in the movement marked Furioso, the only one in which propulsive rhythm played a major role; and a bee-swarm buzzing to begin the finale, which as noted also incorporated the vocal chattering. Each stanza of the Tarkovsky poem, as translated by Kitty Hunter-Blair, ended with the line “But there has to be more.” By and by, that ceased to be the case.
The program ended with another excerpt, the Nocturne slow movement from Borodin’s String Quartet No. 2 in D major, like the Foote a work often performed as a standalone for string orchestra. As advertised, it was as diametrically opposed an experience from the Saariaho as could be. While it would be easy to let Borodin’s glorious melody caress the ears and think no more of it, it is a truly cleverly constructed piece that for us illustrates some of the tricks available to tonal harmony that subsequent systems have not been able to match (that is, they don’t attempt to do so). By the simple expedient of starting his tune on different degrees of the diatonic scale, Borodin could evoke widely varying emotional contexts—just try that with a tone row! After a few intonational bumps at the beginning, the performance by AFC settled into a lovely one that keyed itself to the overall serenity of the piece; though the unduly slow tempo of the outer sections, intended no doubt to contrast with the livelier middle section, might have benefited from a little more forward thrust.