IN: Reviews

Criers Contrast Gesualdo with Norman Bates


An early knife-wielder
An early knife-wielder

It is unlikely that a concert theme will ever be more appropriate than that of the season finale of A Far Cry at Jordan Hall Friday. Titled “Happily Ever After”, this idea had great relevance in many respects, not the least of which was a medical emergency with a happy outcome which broke down the already flimsy fourth wall.

A Far Cry, the conductorless string orchestra has, in seven seasons, become an essential part of the Boston musical landscape. Always fresh, challenging, and exciting, the level of musicianship and technical prowess displayed by the Criers and their guests really cannot be beaten anywhere. Perhaps it is the level of concentration they bring which is infectious, perhaps it is the sense of community they engender between themselves and the audience, or perhaps it is just that they are so damn good.

Last night’s program opened with a string arrangement of Carlo Gesualdo’s “Moro Lasso” from his sixth book of madrigals, arranged for string orchestra by A Far Cry. Gesualdo is a fascinating composer, whose dreadful personal life (he killed his wife and her lover in a horrifyingly graphic manner, stabbing them both to death in her bedchamber), sometimes overshadows his immense creativity. His language is jarring, strange, and extremely chromatic, considered by many to be far ahead of its time (c. 1560 to 1613). By today’s standards, he would probably have been diagnosed with several forms of mental illness, which certainly were not helped by the presumed guilt or grief he may have felt over his deeds.

The text is: “I die, alas, in my suffering. And she who could give me life, Alas, kills me and will not help me. O sorrowful fate/ She who could give me life/ Alas, gives me death.” Stripped of the text, a bit of the pungency of Gesualdo’s remarkable harmonic language is not as sharp. Our 21st century ears are used to dissonance, and the warmth of the string sound, even in simplistic, non-vibrato style, tended to mute the strangeness. The piece was rendered in a sort of distant  pianissimo, very effectively evoking a wandering mind, tormented.

After the opening, bassist Karl Doty explained the concept of the program as an arc from death and isolation to life and community. He and his now-fiancée, Crier violinist Liesl Schoenberger, curated the program. It’s an interesting idea, and one that made sense ultimately. But I think it’s also interesting to note the pairings of the two halves of the program. Gesualdo with Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra  by Bernard Herrmann of music from the Hitchcock film Psycho, an actual knife wielder paired with the fictional murderer, Norman Bates, followed in the second half by the contrasting of Copland’s Appalachian Spring with its imbedded hoedown, to a suite of Finnish fiddling music.

Bernard Herrmann is one of the greatest film composers of the 20th century. He worked extensively with Orson Welles, Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock, but is probably most remembered for the score to Psycho. The screeching violins of the infamous shower scene add to the madness and disorientation of that terrifying moment. The music of the suite is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the film, and brilliantly depicts the suspense, loneliness, and madness of its characters, all of whom are lost in some way. An outstanding performance by the Criers, full of urgency, fear, and tension. Without the visuals, the music is reminiscent of another terrorized individual, the composer Shostakovich.

After a five-minute pause, the Criers played one of the loveliest performances of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring that I have ever heard. They were joined by Susan Palma-Nidel on flute, Romie de Guise-Langlois, who has one of the lushest clarinet sounds I’ve heard lately, Brad Balliett on bassoon, and Amy Yang on piano. The opening measures alone, let alone the numerous meter changes throughout the work, can be tricky even with a conductor. All the more amazing when done without. All the solos were outstanding, and the addition of piano and winds added beautiful color to the warmth of the strings.

As the piano was put away, the violins and violas set themselves up offstage, in the middle of Jordan Hall for the premiere of Finnish Fiddling Suite by JPP, arranged by Doty. Jarvelan Pikkupelimmanit (JPP), or Little Fiddlers of Jarvela, is a group from a village in Finland famous for its fiddling techniques and a particular musical family. Judging from the music overall, Saturday nights in Jarvela are a lot of fun!

The suite was in four movements, Wedding Suite, McLean’s Dream, Speedy Slam, and Hale Bopp. With basses and cellos on stage playing a drone bass, the violins and violas began progressing through the hall playing a beautiful melody, as though progressing through a village to a wedding. I was just thinking what a gift this was to the audience, to be surrounded by the sound of these players, to hear what it’s like to be INSIDE this sound, when the music ground to a halt. It became clear that an audience member had suffered a medical emergency, which was promptly dealt with by  medical professionals in the house, and the swift arrival of first responders. The audience waited in respectful silence until the person could safely to be  moved from the hall. The responders got a round of applause, we all took a collective breath, and Karl was able to announce that the person was going to be okay.

A later knife-wielder
A later knife-wielder

The program resumed, with the wedding suite a little more solemn than before. The second movement opened with an extended jazzy duo between Schoenberger and Doty, and their musical partnership speaks well of their impending life partnership. Beautifully matched. The third movement, Speedy Slam, was just that, a breathtaking rush of hemiolas and chops that is A Far Cry at its best. The final movement used a pizzicato tremolo that was quite beautiful.

After a standing ovation, the group reprised the third movement of the Finnish Suite at an even more breakneck speed, exhilarating and celebratory. The sense of community that the Criers wished to engender had been reinforced by being reminded of the unpredictable and fragile nature of life, and we were lucky to have a chance to experience such a happy ending.

Elisa Birdseye, executive director of the Boston Chamber Ensemble, is an active freelance violist and principal violist of the New Bedford Symphony. Additionally, she has worked as the general manager of the New England Philharmonic and Boston Musica Viva.

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  1. I’ve never read a review with which I more completely agreed. AFC goes from strength to strength.

    Comment by John Emery — May 24, 2014 at 4:37 pm

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