Thursday’s concert at Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum was part of the “Stir” series, billed as “an adventurous mix of contemporary art, music and performance.” The “adventure” on this night was a jazz/classical program featuring Focus, a group of seven short pieces by the jazz composer Eddie Sauter (1914-1981), performed by the conductorless string orchestra A Far Cry with guest tenor saxophonist Harry Allen. Focus was released as an album in 1961 featuring Stan Getz, at whose request Sauter wrote the piece. The two men met years earlier when both worked for Benny Goodman. It was also through Goodman that Sauter met Bela Bartok—and the inflections of Bartok in “Focus” drove the programming of the Hungarian’s late “Divertimento for Strings” as the opening piece.
The seven pieces of Focus are entirely independent: they are seven tracks to an album, not seven movements of a single work. What binds them together is ambitious string writing far beyond that of a typical jazz arrangement. The strings were supplemented with harp, piano and percussion, but the overwhelming sound was that of a string orchestra. Sauter also had a taste for sounds from the 20th-century composers who had established themselves by the 1950s. Apart from Bartok, whose Music for Percussion, Strings and Celesta is directly alluded to, there’s a neoclassical bent that suggests Stravinsky’s attitude if not a lot of his music, and a lot of harmony indebted to Debussy—through a soft-focus jazz lens. When Sauter composed “Focus” he did not write out much of Getz’s part, and Getz himself recorded the album in one day by himself, listening to the pre-recorded string parts. Allen’s performance on this evening was so fluid and well-constructed that, not knowing the original, I wondered if he were improvising or working from a transcription from the album. I was able to look through the score, and found almost no notated music: instead, there was a reduction of the orchestral parts with large stretches of empty measures. In some places there were chord symbols; in others, stemless noteheads indicating scales or modes that were in play.
Allen’s fluency, combined with charming flashes in Sauter’s writing, afforded many pleasures: “I’m Late, I’m Late”, the first piece, bumped along with an ostinato whose rhythmic displacements made openings that Allen used to dodge in and out; “Pan” opened with a stereotyped Spanish sound evocative of the Capriccio espangole” that calmed down and became more nuanced as the work progressed; “I Remember When” was nostalgic, as befits its title, but Allen kept it touching without becoming sentimental. But by the end some of the individual pieces and the work as a whole began to wear. The relative complexity of the arrangement (far beyond the typical Pops arrangement) and the complete freedom of the solo part created a gap in expectation. The string writing demanded something like development to justify its complexity; the soloist’s momentary and inspired gestures demanded some immediate response in return. But neither of these demands could be met, there being no development provided for the soloist and no freedom for the orchestra. When it is working at its best, Focus is a fertile experiment in a kind of juxtaposition, but too often it is a conversation where neither party is completely able to listen sympathetically and advance the discussion. It is another chapter in the American story of popular vs. classical culture, from Astaire and Rogers in “Top Hat”, to “West Side Story”, to things like Hubert Laws’s jazz Rite of Spring. Its ambition is admirable, and the evident joy the Criers took in playing the piece was pleasant to see, but the synthesis remained incomplete.
It probably did not do Sauter any good to have had to follow the Divertimento, a work of Bartok’s from his late period that fuses the uncompromising and idiosyncratic rigor of the final quartets with a deceptively accessible folk-music derived surface. The adventure in this case came from the struggle between the Criers’ decision to perform the piece as a small string orchestra and the stern and unforgiving acoustic of Calderwood Hall. There were successes; the many multi-pitched chords played by the entire orchestra were firm and filled the space precisely, penetrating to every corner of the Calderwood cube without pressing or overflowing. The hushed, low opening of the second movement began at the very edge of audibility without sacrificing any of its melody, an effect marred somewhat by the leisurely seating of latecomers who had to pick their way through the long aisles in the balcony. But when the parts separated out, the small numbers in the un-reverberant space drained the music of impact, and gave no cover to small imperfections of pitch or attack. Nevertheless, the Criers made good use of this struggle, delivering a spare and dark reading of an extroverted work that has the devastation of the Sixth Quartet buried inside it.