Rarely have I witnessed such a relaxed and joyful performance as the one given Friday night at Jordan Hall when our esteemed Robert Levin joined the self-directed chamber orchestra “A Far Cry” in the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, K. 449. Fleet and precise, never cold or mechanical, the Criers and Levin made especial magic in the first movement, whose restless succession of inspired melodic fragments was pushed forward ever so slightly, giving a sense of constant surprising discovery. The orchestra played, as always, without a conductor, but Levin was clearly in charge of the show. The piano was placed dead center stage, in the middle of the orchestra, with the pianist facing the audience straight on, making it impossible to ignore how he guided the action, subtly and not-so. He never raised his hands to give a beat, but rather leaned to one side or another, gave meaningful glances, and often favored the musicians with beatific smiles. The soloist surrounded by strings gave an understated realization of the Andantino, whose depth only suddenly struck you after its softly abrupt ending, and a brisk walking-pace performance of the Allegro, whose wide-gapped melody both skipped and sang.
The concert was entitled “Improvisation,” and Levin is reputed to be the finest improviser in the classical tradition today; there was much of this to be heard in his beautifully ornamented interactions with the orchestra as well as in his charming reinforcements in the tuttis, yet it was possible to find his tasteful, thoughtful, but brief cadenzas to be just a little disappointing. After the Mozart finished, though, a member of the orchestra carried on stage a silver bowl containing brief melodies in classical style furnished by the members of the orchestra. Levin took three at random, and proceeded to improvise an extended fantasy on them. The examples were all graceful and poised, but were very different from one another, and it was gripping to watch him hastily fashion an architecture that could encompass them all. The result was compelling, even a little terrifying to this writer, who has found even simple improvisation to be akin to doing algebra while skiing. Levin was not above making musical jokes, sly and otherwise, as he made his way, and had frequent recourse to stormy passages that recalled middle period Beethoven at his most fist-shaking. If you have ever found it difficult to believe the stories of the improvisations of the composers of the past, this would have cured you of your skepticism.
At one end of the continuum of concert-hall improvisation was Francesco Geminiani, a compact four-movement Concerto Grosso, Op. 3 No. 3. Geminiani is barely known compared to his contemporaries Rameau, Telemann and Domenico Scarlatti, and this performance simultaneously suggested why that might be—and what a shame it was. Its surface is attractive and consonant with one’s idea of the Italian baroque, but is not strongly inflected, and can pass by without leaving an impression. Given close attention—if, for example, while listening to detect what improvisation might be occurring—it discloses a subtle and canny skill in the intertwining of voices (note the handling the six-note descending chromatic scale in the second movement) and in the gentle violations of expectation (scale-wise eighths suddenly replaced by surprising leaps in the third). The orchestra produced a sound that was warm and luminous and just a bit hazy, a bit of a cushion for the various solo lines to stand out against. Quick glances at the score revealed significant improvised lines in the opening slow movement, and moments of sudden departures from the text at other moments. The effect was quietly charming despite the minor-key seriousness of the piece.
At the other end of the improvisation continuum was Ljova’s (b. 1978 as Lev Zhurbin) Throw the Book, a world premiere. Described as a “guided improvisation”, the score consists of 16 “cells” described in text, with no musical notation at all. The content of some of the cells seems clear: at the beginning, the entire orchestra played rapid notes in rhythmic unison, placing accents closer and closer together, arriving first in an accented note and 11 unaccented notes, then an accented note and 10 unaccented notes, etc. until two accents are played together, and then the process begins again. The pitches sounded randomly or quasi-randomly chosen, and changed as the pattern restarted. It would be tedious to catalog guesses at what the work’s cells were made up of; all together, they formed a fast-slow-fast arc of music that held the attention, but did so lightly. About two-thirds of the way through some stagecraft began to appear: a rather beautiful dual improvisation between two players at opposite sides of the stage was performed while they were screened behind large colorful scarves or cloths, which were carried by other players who would shake them as the players moved around stage. The purpose was not entirely clear. Later, all hell broke loose with whooping and noise-making and even a Crier doing crunches downstage; it was funny but awkward. Something of a relief came when a player stood on the empty chair in the middle of the orchestra (standing for the essential leaderlessness of the piece, I imagine) and dropped a large paperback book about rock on the floor to bring the proceedings to an end. Ljova was there himself to participate, so one presumes the realization was more or less definitive. Ljova has quite a lot of buzz around him, with pending commissions from the Silk Road Ensemble and Brooklyn Rider, but Throw the Book doesn’t offer enough to make an intelligent assessment of his gifts.
Somewhere in the middle stands Frederick Rzewski’s 1969 Les moutons de Panurge, a piece built around a tricky syncopated 65-note melody. In the first part the players build up the melody one note at a time—note 1, then 1-2, then 1-2-3, etc., until the entire melody is played, then reversing the process subtracting one note until only the initial note remains; after that, the players are asked to improvise. There are instructions as well for non-musicians who may participate. The title refers to an episode in Rabelais where the shepard Panurge throws a sheep overboard in a dispute with a merchant, only to see the flock follow the first sheep one by one into the sea. The piece was composed at a politically tense moment in America and reflects subtly Rzewski’s hopes and doubts about human society. The performers, whose number and instruments are unspecified, are to follow the rules of the piece absolutely, unless they get lost, in which case they are to “stay lost. Do not try to find your way back into the fold.” The non-musicians are to make loud noises, and there is a leader for them, but Rzewski also provides a “theme for non-musicians: the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.” I provide such an exhaustive description because the Criers only told the audience of the “stay lost” rule, and gave only an oblique suggestion that there might be a place for the audience to participate. Add to this the fact that the Criers are perhaps far too good players for this piece. Staying together seemed trivial to them, only a couple of players ever got off track, and even then I’m not sure they didn’t do so on purpose. In fact, I’m not sure how well this piece works as a performance for an audiences rather than as a social/artistic process meant to affect the participants. The Jordan Hall audience seemed split about 50/50 between enjoying audience participation and refraining from it. Vuvuzulae were distributed during the performance to those who wished to make noise, which added an air of silliness to the proceedings. The Criers seem to have misunderstood the challenge of the Rzewski as an excuse to lark with the audience.
Also audience-pleasing but far more successful was Turceasca, which the Kronos Quartet performed on its Caravan album with Taraf de Haïdouks, a Turkish Gypsy band. That original, complete with accordion and cimbalom, was arranged by Osvaldo Golijov; Ljova further arranged that version for strings. The multi-sectional whirlwind pastiche of Eastern European melodies and motives had several places for improvisational breaks: one example for violin and cello was especially sensual and heartfelt. Played after the Mozart, it took the Criers a couple of minutes to shake loose. Starting out tidy and perfect, after a few phrases they began to dirty it up, and brought the evening to a thrilling and slightly raunchy close.
Or so we thought, until receiving as an encore commemorating the band’s months of travel, a canny arrangement of “Shipping Up to Boston” in which Dropkick Murphys’ song was both familiar and surprising. With hot fiddle-breaks and a little sea-chantying, it captured that combination of energy, whimsy and top-notch musicianship that distinguishes A Far Cry.