Everybody’s talking about the weather, including the members of A Far Cry. Before the beginning of their Saturday concert at St. John’s Episcopal in Jamaica Plain, the audience heard a lengthy justification of the program that invoked falling snow, emotional chilliness, Scandinavia, anger and climatological catharsis. This amused the audience but was unnecessary: the ensemble’s luminous tone, transparent texture, and intelligent and sensitive conductor-less interpretations required nothing extra-musical to recommend them.
The all-string Criers were matched perfectly to the acoustic of St. John’s. Although spoken comments had trouble projecting clearly from the stage, the instruments filled the space with a tone that was at once rich, resonant and clear. There generous space inside this sound was put to good us in the opener, Steve Reich’s Duet from 1994. The primary material comes from two solo violins playing the same music but while shifting rhythmically with respect to one another. This is Reich’s archetypal compositional process;, which I had also just heard on Monday when Boston Percussion Group played his much earlier Music for Pieces of Wood—but what a universe of difference between the two. Music for Pieces of Wood is almost exclusively about rhythm—what pitch there is simply identifies different players, and harmony doesn’t even enter into it. Here, the rest of the orchestra is called upon to create a cushion of harmony, first in long notes then in more agitated pulses. The soloists’ material is a yearning, incomplete melody that can never fully come to rest; the solo parts are blended into the texture of the other strings, moving languidly within them without dominating. The effect is emotionally hazy and suspended, with several processes of change in motion at once. The performance was simultaneously restful and busy: each of the layers of sound that was in motion could be heard clearly on its own while remaining an fully-knit part of the ensemble. Unlike Reich’s early work, which draws all of your attention to rhythmic process, Duet can be understood without ever noticing the engine that drives it. As the Criers’ executed, it was like watching colors and pulsations gently interacting with one another until they played themselves out.
After this, the program got a bit knottier. Benjamin Britten’s Prelude and Fugue for 18 Instruments from 1943 runs a gamut of emotions: a fragile intensity opens the piece, followed by a surprisingly ornate fugue that moves at quite a clip, and whose climaxes have an irascible quality. It is catchy and dramatic but standoffish: or perhaps you might think so were it not to have been followed by Swedish composer Ingvar Lidholm’s Music for Strings, which made the Britten sound almost eager to please. Britten’s themes might be a little bluff, but Lidholm’s work is structured around dense, heavy gestures, handfuls of notes that are sent clashing against one another. Music for Strings is not exactly forbidding: written in 1952, it sounds positively conservative compared to what
people like Boulez and Stockhausen were creating at the same time. That is part of its power: moment-to-moment, the music sounds comprehensible as a late expression of tonal music, but it is never comfortable. Lidholm, who is 94 now, wasn’t unaware of serialist techniques, and perhaps some are even at work here, but at this first hearing, Music for Strings struck me as a partial disassembly of tonal music, taking it apart to show how to make something that doesn’t function the way you expect. At one point there’s an insistent repetition of the four-note “fate” motive from Beethoven’s Fifth, a flurry of punches that aren’t knocking anything out. Written in two large movements, fast-slow, with a brief coda recalling the opening, it seems overlong, especially in the slow movement, and is difficult to love. However, the Criers lavished every attention on it, making Lidholm’s moves and moving parts audible and contextual. The sheer beauty of the Criers’ sound did nothing to blunt the aggression in the composition itself. I can’t imagine a more persuasive performance of this fierce and unlovely c.
After the Lidholm, Grieg’s Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 were played with immense warmth, tremendous dynamic range and only the slightest touch of sentimentality, perhaps intended as atonement for the harshness of the Lidholm. Then, it was party time, as the concert concluded with a “Swedish Set”, four arrangements of Swedish fiddle tune by Erik Higgins of tunes played by Mia and Mikael Marin, whose album Skuggspel served as the inspiration for the concert’s program. That beauty of tone I’ve been going on about wasn’t exactly what these tunes wanted. The rhythms were cushioned and the melodies wanted to be sharper, edgier. However, the heavy footed waltz “Regnvalsen” was charming in an elbowy, big-boned manner, and the energy and pleasure visible in the bodies and faces of the players made for a sunny end, dispelling any of the chill that had accumulated on the way.