in: Reviews

November 22, 2014

Contemplating 1964

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In its 8th season A Far Cry, Boston’s conductor-less string orchestra, has never been artistically stronger, but the Criers are also a moment when important decisions beg for attention as the players contemplate moving into their second decade. Last night at Jordan Hall “1964” was as passionately and impressively performed as any of their other concerts, but suffered from an ill-advised theme and execution for which their virtuosity barely compensated.

The concert’s unifying theme came from Terry Riley’s hypnotic In C (1964), which the Criers performed with Urbanity Dance (more on that later). But that narrow focus which demanded other works from the same year gave us Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s 10th String Quartet and the little-known Symphony No. 7 by Mieczyslaw Weinberg, featuring harpsichordist Bálint Karosi.

The first half’s pieces came from behind the Iron Curtain, and aside from simply being composed in the same year as In C, seemed to fail in their purpose of showing ‘another side’ of a complex year. If they were selected to show music written under the thumb of manic left-wing socialist machines that think they can shape reality by fiat, stronger examples (like Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet rather than his 10th) could have been found. The Weinberg and Barshai/Shostakovich seemed chosen because they were quite literally from the right place at the right time. What’s more, since they were both in the same vein, the entire concert seemed to have a Soviet/Terry Riley dichotomy.

But 1964 was a year of chaos and not dilemma: the Civil Rights Act, and the race riots which ensued; the reality of draft card burnings and the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin Incident; political turmoil and the War of Poverty. These are 1964 too, but you wouldn’t know from the evening’s offerings. That is not to say that all the events of one year should be included; but perhaps that, due to this complexity, that year is too broad a focus for the concert to rise beyond naive and superficial.

Yet by intermission, the hall was abuzz with anticipation for the main event, a 50th anniversary performance of In C with Urbanity Dance. And there were some amazing moments from both instrumentalists and dancers. But ultimately the monstrous, hour-long length left In C feeling off-balance and rudderless; the specific moments of inspiration remained only hazily distant memories by the time the piece played itself out.

But there were also many good things happening. To start with, the concept of linking dance to this often tedious music, if for no other reason than to provide a distraction from the “nothing” unfolding before your ears, provided the possibility for innovative things, a promise which was often though not consistently realized or delivered. The choreography attributed to Betsi Graves developed by the dancers in much the same democratic way the players decided their music cues, included some innovative moments like interactions with the players, and even a living chessboard towards the end of the work, so that the whole corpus functioned as one massive visual-music machine. Some specific moments were very effective, including an intimate pas de deux between a female dancer and a male bassist, and a daring human canopy which was carried over the performing fiddlers.

Friday night-awaiting caption

“In C”, in mid-performance. Musicians referred to a score taped to the floor.

The problems stemmed less from the actual musical moments than from how few there were. The form largely governed by improvised timing and cues yields a realization as long as the performers wish it to be—or as short. After nearly an hour, it seemed no one was in charge, and the show simply ran away with itself. Proponents of In C may argue that it is the epitome of organic growth, like watching a plant sprout; however, every inspirational video of such shows the audience such a time-lapse. Watching it in real time is literally watching the grass grow or paint dry.

And at 10:30, the Criers returned with a lighthearted but labored encore of Beatles tunes, for which the dancers returned as well. At this point, with their hippie-inspired wardrobe accents and flawlessly executed lines, which weren’t so flawless when Paul and John made them famous, a well-intentioned homage came off as a gimmick. In all the Criers seemed not to sense what was working and what was falling flat. In the future they would do well to seek out collaborators experienced in this style: improvisers, folk musicians, rock artists, and the like.

There is Shakespeare, and stand-up comedy; while the Shakespearean actor can hush a crowd with a flawlessly delivered monologue, a great stand-up comic can keep them in stitches knowing when to milk a moment, and when to move on. One is imposed, the other improvised; both are skills, and woe betides the actor who confuses his genre.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

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