It may be entirely too cute to say it, but having attended a substantial handful of programs by the conductorless ensemble A Far Cry, I can’t help saying that their wide-ranging programming is a far cry above the frequent conglomeration of old standards presented—often extremely well, to be sure—by other groups. In residence at the Isabell Stewart Gardner Museum, the Criers certainly do not avoid much-loved standards, but rather place them in a fresh context that often casts new light on the influence of a program’s most “classical” work.
Such was certainly the case Thursday evening in the latest program in the series “AvantGardner,” one that had as its centerpiece J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3, surrounded by three more contemporary works (two of them from the 21st century!) that were inspired by or respond in some way to the string ensemble (plus harpsichord) of Bach’s popular score.
The essential features of the Bach piece are vigorous, driving rhythms and a “stringy” sonority made up of groups of instruments (in the first movement: three violins, three violas, and three cellos, plus double bass and harpsichord) sometimes playing in unison, sometimes breaking into solo passages. The opening offers a simple trio texture in which all the violins play one musical line, all the violas a second, and the cellos and bass a third (the bass sounding an octave lower), while the harpsichord part is improvised on the harmonic structure. (On this occasion, the harpsichord, superbly played by Ian Watson, was frequently overpowered by the string ensemble, possibly because of my location on the lowest of the four levels of Calderwood Hall and my proximity to the strings.) As the first movement continues, each of the three principal divisions of the ensemble takes a brief moment to break into solo passages rarely lasting more than a few beats as the three players echo one another, then quickly reforming into the three-strings-in-unison texture. The result is a continual rotation of the musical kaleidoscope, with each player having a turn in the sun.
The expected slow movement comes as a surprise to those unfamiliar with the piece, consisting of just two long-held chords, over which the harpsichordist may improvise briefly, before plunging into the rapid-fire jig of the finale (which truly was rapid-fire in this performance), with the violins and violas maintaining the flexible three-part texture of the first movement, while the cellos and double bass unite throughout in a single solid bass line. The performance was (as we have come to expect from A Far Cry) superbly blended and unified in ensemble, leaving one breathlessly invigorated at the close.
The Bach was preceded by a one-movement score for eight solo violins by Andrew Norman, Gran Turismo, composed in 2004, when he was still a student at the University of Southern California. Here the players remained soloists throughout, but the energy never flagged. Although the harmonies made it clear that this was a more modern conception of a lively work for string ensemble, the composer’s reference (in his program note) to “the legacy of Baroque string virtuosity as a point of departure” was evident, along with the further inspiration, surprisingly apropos of a video game about car racing that his roommates were playing as he was conceiving the piece. It was this game that suggested the title. Chamber ensembles rarely have eight violinists available to perform Gran Turismo, but it has become a showpiece for the students in violin studios of conservatories, and the violinists of A Far Cry made a strong case for its performance in other contexts as well.
The specific idea for this Gardner program, placing the Brandenburg No. 3 at the center of a program works that could be seen to be affiliated somehow, was shaped by “Crier” Jesse Irons, no doubt stemming from a 2007 program in which the New York-based conductorless ensemble Orpheus commissioned a specific counterpart to each of the Brandenburg concertos. Christopher Theophanidis (b. 1967) was assigned the third concerto as his inspiration. For Muse, he laid his ensemble out in exactly the same way as Bach had done. (In Thursday’s performance, the stage setting was kept identical, but the players rotated to different positions within their section). In his program note, Theofanidis explained that he wanted to retain the “light and transparent sound” of the Bach, while also keeping quite closely to the sound world to the Baroque. In this he succeeded superbly. Muse is a wonderfully lively and colorful counterpart to Bach’s score, yet not in any sense a “ripoff.” He features the running 16-notes that are so much a part of the Bach, but projects a triplet rhythm and a minor-key version of Bach’s ritornello before going his own way. And in place of Bach’s mere two chords for the slow movement, he created a flowing long-breathed melody with rich ornamentation. The final movement offers an explicit homage to Bach in quoting a chorale melody, Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, as a flowing thread within the fast-moving figures. The audience responded with stormy applause at the end of this very effective and attractive piece.
The closing work also called for string ensemble, Symphony for Open Strings by the senior Dutch master Louis Andriessen (b. 1939), but used it in a way that one hardly ever hears: Each instruments is tuned in a different, unique way to produce all the chromatic pitches over a four octave range. In performance, the players are restricted to just the four “open” pitches available in their instruments, that is to say without stopping the strings to change the pitch. Among other things, this deprives the sonority of any vibrato (which can only be produced when a finger pressed the string against the keyboard and wiggles it slightly back and forth to change the pitch infinitesimally. It also means that no single player can play a simple scalar melody because the consecutive pitches will be found on different instruments. The resulting sonority is often remarkably bell-like, and, indeed, the experience for the performers must be similar to that of playing music with handbells, since each can only play one note at a time, and the continuation of a musical idea must be handed over to another performer.
At first this sounds like an exceptionally simple-minded way to produce sounds, and yet the variety is surprising. At the outset of this nearly half-hour piece, a gentle rocking rhythm alternating two chords sounds surprisingly electronic. Gradually small motifs appear (especially a three-note figure: rising second, then rising third) makes an appearance and repeats a number of times. (The layout of the score involves certain brief sections that are repeated a given number of times, which links this work to much minimalist music of its period of composition (1978). As the work unfolds, there are some great surprises—some of them amazingly simple, such as a long downward scale passage that appears several times just when the ear has become convinced that a simple diatonic scale is not at all part of the language of the piece, and (perhaps even more surprising) an evident quotation appearing more than once of the Rodgers and Hart song Blue Moon—ending just soon enough to avoid copyright infringement! The rocking alternating chords of the opening recur frequently, often creating the sound of a squeeze-box accordion, and returning at the close in a dying fall.
The focus of the players was certainly matched by an echoing focus among listeners, who, again, cheered lustily at the end of a concert both stimulating and unusual. Kudos to all!