A Far Cry finished its calendar year 2013 concerts on December 8th with its second program of the weekend at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. This after also appearing in the AvantGardner series Thursday. AFC returned Sunday with substantially the same program they did in Jamaica Plain Saturday, “Melting Pot,” whose scheme was to highlight the diverse threads that weave the American musical tapestry. As thematic headings for concerts go, this was about as good as any, though in execution it was more a demonstration of the “salad bowl” conceit of being an international tourist in one’s own country than a study of sundry antecedents to a single, even if blended, national esthetic.
The tour began with three movements from the Vjola Suite (the reason for that spelling will become evident) by the New York-based Russian émigré Lev Aleksandrovich Zhurbin, who composes, arranges and performs (viola) under the name “Ljova.” Like much of his work the Vjola Suite inhabits the mixed-pickles “world music” universe, blending Middle Eastern, Balkan and Latin elements in original and irregular but toe-tappingly infectious rhythms (the accordionist-composer Guy Klucevsek does something similar). The opening number, “Bagel on the Malecon,” featured a Cuban-influenced element, bouncy but with a whiff of the Palm Court to it. The next two, “Ori’s Fearful Symmetry,” which, apart from riffing on a sci-fi title (or was it Blake’s Tiger or the John Adams piece?), placed an intriguing 4+5 beat into very regular foursquare phrases, and then “Budget Bulgar,” favored the Balkan-Mediterranean axis. All three were agreeable, clever but musically undemanding in the tradition of late 19th century Zigeunerweise music, yet virtuosic in execution. This the Criers adeptly and winsomely negotiated, with special kudos due to soloists Sarah Darling, viola, and Jesse Irons, violin.
The only way in which the premiere of Erik Nielsen’s Glimpses of Azure fit into the ostensible theme of the program is that Nielsen (no relation to Carl that we can ascertain) is an American, from Vermont. His connection to AFC is interesting, though: as he explained to us, he was associated with the Vermont Youth Orchestra when Irons, then a high-schooler, performed with them. When AFC came to Vermont six years ago, he renewed the acquaintance and committed to write something for them. Azure—the name refers to a kind of refrain with harmonics and other high pitches that punctuates the work’s four movements, a refrain Nielsen conceived as a sort of mental and spiritual cleansing, focusing up on the clear sky—is a string symphony traditionally and very well built, and squarely in the neo-tonal idiom. It begins with a developmental movement on a central motif, in a broadly tonal 1940s style we’ll call “Schumanesque,” follows with a “tipsy” scherzo of pizzicato phrases that break off unexpectedly, moves into a Romantic, gentle and sorrowful slow movement with occasional “out of tune” melodic licks, and closes with a rondo on a marcato rhythmic figure and episodes that bring back earlier material, until all closes quietly with the azure sky. The work, splendidly performed, struck us as lucid and emotionally persuasive. We have often wondered where to turn nowadays to find the level of craft so assiduously acquired and practiced by late 19th and early 20th century American masters; now we know.
The second half of the program began with a short “Hymn: Largo Cantabile” from the Set of 3 Short Pieces by Charles Ives. This item, dating according to the program booklet from the first decade of the last century (the set seems not to have been assembled until the 1930s), is Ives in one of his gentler moments, a little reminiscent in feeling to the “winter music” of Washington’s Birthday but without the icy harmonic bite. The hymn, if there was a specific one Ives had in mind, was hidden, but the foreground was charming, though perhaps more Currier than Ives as we tend to think of him.
The principal work of the second half was an arrangement by BSO cellist Blaise Déjardin of Dvořák’s String Quintet in E flat major, op. 97, known as the American Quintet. Now, ensembles with unusual instrumentation (for example, the Boston Cello Quartet, of which Déjardin is a member) often rely on arrangements to fill gaps in available repertoire. The string orchestra quiver is not, however, severely bereft of arrows, so one must go a step further and inquire what an arranged piece contributes to one’s appreciation for the particular work. No doubt having this piece available to it made a suitable thematic anchor for AFC’s program on Sunday. Hearing it left us musing on the pluses and minuses of such an enterprise from a strictly musical standpoint. Composers have often arranged their own chamber works for larger string ensembles: think of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Barber’s Adagio). One definitely gains in force and sonic gravitas by having massed string sonority. What one loses, though, is often the bite of individual string sound and of harmonic detail; this is a charge often leveled at the string orchestra arrangements of Beethoven’s Große Fuge and, one we would place upon Déjardin’s effort here, particularly in the characteristic minor-major dissonance in the principal tune of the opening movement and in the rhythmic punch of the finale’s dotted rhythms. One must also consider balance: the op. 97 is a viola quintet, while AFC’s forces are violin-heavy (nine, as against three violas), though Déjardin compensated somewhat by dividing the cellos and, of course, having basses to take the bottom. To be sure, the slow movement’s variations were made even nobler with the bigger sound, so as with anything else, you pay your money and take your choice. But color us unconvinced.
By and large, the Criers did full justice to the piece, with precision to match their boundless enthusiasm. We would, though, have been happier if the finale, already the weakest movement musically, had been taken with more attention to its rhythmic snap, and more briskly.
Unusually for an AFC program, this one closed with an encore, a rousing Romany foot-stomper by Sapo Perapaskero called “Turceasca,” as arranged first by Osvaldo Golijov and then by Ljova, which also involved some splendid improvisations from too many Criers to name, as well as the sight of Ljova performing with his left hand in a boxing glove-sized bandage (obviously, he limited himself to playing on open strings!).