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Cunning “Mind’s Eye” from A Far Cry


Sarah Darling's arrangement
Sarah Darling’s arrangement

A Far Cry, Boston’s own cutting-edge leaderless string orchestra, presented the sixth concert of its seventh season on Friday night at Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory. Violist Sarah Darling’s program, “The Mind’s Eye,” was, “an exploration of the musical world of the interior monologue.”

To begin, eight violinists stood for Darling’s arrangement of Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passacaglia in G Minor, the final work in Biber’s set of Mystery/Rosary Sonatas for violin and continuo. The work is built over multiple repetitions of a descending four-note scale (this, then, is presumably a monologue based around an obsessive idée fixe), and it was one of the earliest pieces to call on a solo violinist to create polyphony, or play two or more independent running melodies on a single instrument. By dividing the multiple lines of the solo work among eight violinists, Darling had the ability to play at multiple patterns. A phrase would start in one violinist, then move to the next violinist, and two or three different ones could be playing different material at the same time. This made for a playful, kaleidoscopic array of patterns, with bows moving from the wings to the center, in parallel directions and opposite directions, in pairs, and in groups of four, shifting constantly and ultimately breaking up and handing off ideas mid-phrase. To be able to pull off handoffs like this without breaking the line of the phrase takes the kind of careful listening to your partners and anticipation of their actions that mark the best chamber musicians. The eight Criers not only handed ideas among each other with dovetailed precision, they managed to express a flexibility and personality with each quick moment, here a little jazzy, there more Classically precise, masterfully capturing Biber’s own shifts of mood and expression. The density and complexity of the shifts made it all the more startling when all eight violinists played in unison near the end. I’d love to hear this arrangement again, though A Far Cry sets an awfully high standard for execution.

A set of Serge Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 followed. Prokofiev’s piano miniatures are odd, whimsical, fleeting musical portraits evoking twenty of his friends; the tie to the monologue is the image of the composer alone at the piano, imagining how to capture his friends in sound. Prokofiev was notorious for his distinctive approach to playing and composing piano music, stressing the percussive character of the instrument (though his own recording of nine of them, audible here are much more delicate and nuanced than many performances). Eighteen Criers took the stage for Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of fifteen of the twenty Visions. Hearing these works played by a string orchestra was a revelation. I heard closer ties to the sound world of Prokofiev’s early orchestral works such as the First Symphony and the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and surprisingly, I could barely recognize them compared with the piano works. (Somehow, this contrast is less stark compared with Ravel’s piano works or Mahler’s Lieder.) A Far Cry matched Prokofiev’s quirky, mercurial shifts of mood, milked the Poulenc-like impish humor to amusing effect, and played up the sentimental lyricism that is often hidden behind his sardonic savagery.

I looked to the first piece after intermission with some trepidation. In lesser hands, Alfred Schnittke’s Monologue for viola and strings can come across as a formless, shapeless celebration of musical ugliness. However, for this performance, A Far Cry was joined by Kim Kashkashian, who gave a performance for the ages. Her ravishing, big-boned tone, her rock-solid intonation, and her diverse array of timbre and attack have no equal (her only rival is Yuri Bashmet, who was the dedicatee of the Monologue). But it is Kashkashian’s ability to shape a phrase and give musical ideas intent and direction that transformed the Schnittke into a riveting, devastating “meditation on anguish,” to quote the program notes. And the eighteen Criers were with Kashkashian all the way, sometimes providing ruminative echoes, sometimes Greek chorus commentary, and sometimes anticipating her next phrase. Every pained dissonance, every furious howl of pain and every resigned whisper registered and accumulated. I don’t think this piece can be performed better than we heard it on Friday night.

Kim Kashkashian (Silvia Lelli photo)
Kim Kashkashian (Silvia Lelli photo)

To provide catharsis for the sonic nightmare of the Schnittke, the program concluded with the Ricercar in six parts that concludes J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering. In its entirety, the Offering is another study in obsessive rumination, being a trio sonata, ten canons, and two fugues based on a theme proposed by Frederick the Great of Prussia as a test of Bach’s compositional skill. Crier Alex Fortes arranged the six part fugue for the 18 part ensemble, dividing the top four parts among the nine violins and four violas, assigning the fifth part to the three cellos, and the lowest part to two double basses.

The program displayed a cunning structure, with two Soviet composers flanked by two Germanic Baroque masters, one working a descending scale theme obsessively through multiple elaborated repetitions, the other working a theme with a descending chromatic scale in six part counterpoint. The “Royal Theme” could be heard poking in and out of the dense textures with perfect clarity, and its last appearance, low in the registers of the double basses, gave the entire program a feel of a comforting return home.

A Far Cry returns with a program of “Cries,” an exploration of loss and lament in which they will be joined by the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, on Saturday, May 10 at St. John’s Episcopal in Jamaica Plain, and Sunday May 11th at Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

James C.S. Liu is a physician by day and a baritone and music enthusiast by night. He lives with his wife and daughters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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