Ordinarily concerts don’t open with a viola joke, but the intrepid string orchestra A Far Cry seems incapable of putting together an ordinary concert; the Boston music scene is far richer for this. “Tongue in Cheek” at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain on Saturday, [and at the Gardner on Sunday] was no exception, as the Criers explored a theme that usually remains the province of performing musicians themselves: the musical joke. Violist Sarah Darling, responsible for this delightful concept, related that in considering a reliance on comedy, the group had experienced the anxiety that only the standup comic knows–will it come off? In short, some of it did and some of didn’t. One of the most exciting and endearing qualities of this group is its ability to take substantial risks, its willingness to endure some loses for the possibility of big wins.
Allegro Troppo, by Harvard professor of mathematics Noam Elkies, burst from the Criers with energy and charm. The joke here was in both the piece’s title, a riff on the common tempo marking allegro ma non troppo [allegro, but not too much], and its charming asymmetrical rhythms. The title was more joke than tempo marking, presto was fast enough, but the perpetual motion 16th notes that saturated this light and lilting major mode fugue reflected the character of a movement careening ever forward “too fast.” An off kilter 5/4 time signature dictated uneven phrase lengths, alien to a piece self-consciously working within the strictures of a Mozartian classical style, that nevertheless felt both odd and inevitable. This was the success of Allegro Troppo. The joke wasn’t purely a negative one (“That’s not supposed to happen!”), but also a positive one (“What a strange and charming way to do that!”).
On the other hand, Paul Hindemith’s Suite from Minimax that open the program relied maybe a bit too much on tripping over musical bananas. Only so many times can a group land on wrong notes and get a laugh. But that was Hindemith’s problem, not the Criers’, and that’s also not to say it didn’t have its moments. As Katherine Bacasmot related in her astute program note, “in Minimax many quotes and references to familiar works of the canon (Beethoven’s 5th, allusions to von Suppé, etc.) sit side-by-side with elements of near slapstick (listen for depictions of the to go with a stuck valve, as portrayed by the cello in the movement Ameemarsch 606).” One of the Criers stood by the side of the ensemble and shouted military orders to begin this hysterical movement, the best and funniest of the five.
Mozart exploited a similar “wrong note” joke for his Ein Musikalischer Spass, K. 522, and the shenanigans continued—from chord progressions and phrases that get stuck; to a horn section (performed by guest Criers John Gattis and Breanna Ellison) that can’t get its notes right; to a concertmaster, Annie Rabbat, that shows off with saccharine, sentimental solos and preposterous cadenzas anytime she’s given the chance (with her violin section rolling their eyes and taking selfies behind her blustery, ridiculous performances); to buffoonish repeating trill solos from the principal viola, drolly dispatched by principal Jason Fisher who slowly and hilariously turned towards the audience to take proper credit for each (probably my favorite joke of the day).
Cellist Michael Unterman noted that while this Mozart piece is, yes, definitely funny, it’s also musically “horrid,” but he was also right in explaining why that’s not the point. Mozart was a working musician (with a scatological sense of humor), and it’s endearing to think of him providing a piece that might make a court band chuckle after a long night of playing predictable music for aristocratic revelers—the kind of thing that might fly under the radar if enough wine had been flowing. Unterman took a more substantial role in Boccherini’s rhythmical jaunty Fandango from Cello Quintet in D Major, G. 341, setting aside his cello to don a sparkly scarf and weave his way into the group, clicking away at a pair of castanets until cellist Karen Ouzonian, having had enough, struts to center stage and, with a wink, draws him into a stomping, over-the-top tango.
Even in Carlo Farina’s Capriccio Stravagante: Kurtweilig Quotlibet, reaching back to the dusty and dark early 17th century, provided ample opportunity for the Criers to have some fun, bringing vivid character to the composer’s corral of extra-musical images. Inspired by vocal madrigalisms, Farina introduced equivalent tone painting gestures into the realm of instrumental music, collecting and featuring the most expressive new string techniques of the time: col legno, sul ponticello, pizzicato, glissando, and the like. He exploits these gestures to create colorful pictures of everything from a church organ and a country dance to cats, dogs, and hens, which violinist Robyn Bollinger announced in cheeky fashion on homemade, posterboard signs during this performance as they passed one by one. The composer even apes a hurdy-gurdy, and the musicians of A Far Cry imitated its pinched, clangy drone with astonishing accuracy.
That’s partly what makes the Criers so exciting. “Tongue in Cheek” came off not just because of its jokes, but because of the brilliant playing around them. A Far Cry simply keeps getting better. Any slight intonation problems and blending issues that may have plagued them in the past seem to have been polished out, and the group is developing a technical finesse to match its inspiring democratic structure and knack for creative programming. First-time A Far Cry attendees leaving this concert wanting more substance will have plenty in what looks like a very exciting 2015-16 season.