It is difficult to credit that A Far Cry, Boston’s conductorless string orchestra, is only beginning its eighth season, so essential has it made itself on the local scene. And yet, so it did, on September 6th in the debilitating, enervating heat of St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain (repeated the next day at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum). The program, which the ensemble had tried out over the summer, was a cleverly curated assortment of night pieces intended to contextualize the program’s final work, the Tchaikovsky Serenade in C. The process involved looking back and jumping forward in time, with works of Biber, Mozart and Stravinsky.
The opener was the quirky Serenade a 5, C. 75 (1680-ish) by Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber von Bibern, subtitled “with the night watchman’s song.” Biber is best known for his series of technically brilliant violin sonatas called, alternatively, “Mystery” or “Rosary” sonatas, most of which revel in scordatura tunings (Biber was widely regarded as the greatest violinist of the 17th century). This serenade, which doesn’t, as far we we can tell, involve any “oddball” tunings, is striking in a different way: in just one movement (the fourth of six), it employs a vocal soloist to sing its eponymous song, to a delicious pizzicato accompaniment in the form of a rudimentary chaconne. But let’s backtrack a bit; the first three movements are far from featureless. The overture “Serenada” works in some exaggerated tempo changes, the following “Allamanda” is brisk and crisp, although in this performance a slightly muddy acoustic worked against it. The aria that followed, contrary to one’s expectations from the name, was quite light-footed. The soloist in the “Ciacona” was AFC bassist Karl Doty, who literally walked the walk while talking the talk (well, OK, singing it), circumambulating the hall. A more resonant voice would have enhanced the clarion effect, but we got the idea. The fifth movement gavotte was strongly accented, and the closing “Retirada” (a misspelling, perhaps, of “retirata,” retreat, which would also explain the “d” in the first movement title, or were both correct Spanish?) was lively and high-stepping, with AFC furnishing a deliciously soft landing.
Next up was Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K. 138, written at age 16. While not, obviously, a fully mature work, and not designed for deep contemplation, it contains many hints of Mozart’s brilliance. The opening allegro is in the early-Classical sonata form with a very abbreviated development and, like early Haydn piano sonatas, a repeated development-recapitulation. It nevertheless manages to work in a few surprising harmonic shifts. The closing tune of the exposition even presages a similar passage in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, written 15 years later. AFC rendered it with elegant sprightliness. The Andante featured some very characteristic Mozart licks, to which the teenager added remarkable depth with clever manipulation of the bass line and liberal use of suspensions. The ensemble played this with conspicuous tenderness and balance. The concluding rondo had a robust and peasanty main tune, while AFC’s delicate and chime-like rendering of the second episode suggested the use of harmonics without actually using them.
Instead of closing the first half with the Mozart, as originally intended, AFC proceeded directly to Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for Strings. Digression: it is worth noting that the ensemble didn’t leave the stage area for the segue, which, in a perhaps non-obvious way, is a tribute to the technical skills of these players at getting and keeping their instruments in tune despite harsh environmental conditions. Back to Stravinsky: This work, dating from 1946, shows the composer in the mellower part of his neoclassical period, in which the brittle, jerky wind-dominated sound of the ‘20s and ‘30s gave way to more rounded string sonorities and the occasional intrusion of what could even pass for lyricism. This Concerto offers both of these features. While it presents itself as a Baroque-style concerto grosso, it is often the case with such pieces solely for strings the distinction between concertino and ripieno is often hard to discern. To our ears (and eyes), the music parceled out to smaller ensembles is no more pronounced than any composer might distribute in an ensemble piece. Be that as it may, AFC provided an enjoyable, energetic and characteristic reading, though a bit heavier than that of its leading competitor, which is…AFC. Their 2009 performance, as well, gave a more prominent articulation of the do-ti-do figure in the lyrical second movement, which they then called Arioso, rather than the bland Andantino title they used Saturday. The finale, a rondo that incorporates some of the pictorialism present in the Symphony in Three Movements, was spirited and great fun with its recurring tremolo “subject.”
As AFC violist and program curator Sarah Darling described after the intermission, the Tchaikovsky Serenade was the justification and goal of the program. Now, a warhorse of the string orchestra repertoire like this (probably only Grieg’s Holberg Suite rivals it in popularity) seems remote from AFC’s ultra-cool image, but intelligently conjoined with and prepared by pieces such as the others on the program, its lush and lavish tribute to the spirit of Mozart—a demure and laconic one, by Tchaikovsky’s standards—was a fitting capstone to the afternoon. One is somewhat unprepared, though, for the big noise AFC made with the opening movement, against which the ensemble was able, especially in the second movement, to show off its virtuosity with pianissimi. It’s no mean feat to make an old chestnut like this sound fresh, but so AFC did, demonstrating that high passion is not incompatible with deft and fleet execution. The slow movement built persuasively from charming delicacy to steamy ardor (and back again), ditto in the finale. After only seven years in business, AFC can make a strong case that there are very few string ensembles, with or without conductor, that are its equal, and none come to our mind that are superior.
Closing note: for those at the concert who wondered whose credit was inadvertently omitted from the elegant program notes, it was Kathryn Bacasmot.