In its 89th season, the concert series at the Gardner Museum retains distinction as the longest continuously running museum based concert series in the country. Sunday’s concert commemorated the 25th anniversary of Scott Nickrenz’s reign at its head, and the 5th anniversary of A Far Cry’s residency there. Among the innovative local ensemble’s recent great press comes its second recording Law of Mosaics was listed in the redoubtable Alex Ross’ Top-10 in The New Yorker—and this concert made it abundantly clear once again clear that the conductorless string orchestra stands at the top of its game.
The concert’s moniker, “TransAmericana,” supported a broad theme: all of the music was from this side of the Atlantic, from New York down to Argentina. Though the programming was a bit uneven, and not as challenging or engaging as the Crier’s best, the execution was top-notch.
The sole contribution from North America, Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, is a four-movement collection of Glass’ typical gestures: if together they earn the title “symphony” it is because of a common dark harmonic coloration, and some formal aspects that might be seen as unifying. The first and third movements are composed mostly in Glass’s pulsing, undulating mode; the second and fourth are more engaging linear movements, made up of scalar patterns running up and down in unpredictable compound meters. The program notes quote Glass describing the third movement as a “chaconne,” which is technically true, built up as it is from a repeated harmonic phrase. It is more Boléro than Bach, and given the repetition that characterizes everything Glass has done as a mature composer, there didn’t seem to be anything particularly distinctive in its construction. The Criers lavished attention on the details in the work: the Calderwood’s acoustical clarity can be a double-edged sword, but the ensemble has figured this space out. Recordings of this work are uniformly dense and dull; in the Criers’ hands Glass’ post-romantic harmonies were carefully weighted and voiced, giving the sound an unexpected depth and dimension. The playing in the more reserved movements was expressive but restrained, and simultaneously precise and wild in the more extroverted. I cannot imagine a more persuasive realization of the piece, though through much of it I remained unpersuaded. However, the fourth movement was especially successful, filled with surprising juxtapositions of harmony and unexpected chromatic sliding.
Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) has an unusually rich family background, born in Berkeley, California to a Chinese/Peruvian mother and a Lithuanian/Jewish father. She has traveled extensively in South America, and her Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout is musical travelogue of the western mountains of that continent. Frank’s musical language in Leyendas emphasizes exotic color: the first three movements (“Toyos”, “Tarqueda” and “Himno de Zampoñas”) all refer to Andean wind instruments, realized or alluded to with extended string techniques. Made up of six movements, Leyendas is a catalog of sound bound together by melodic material whose profile and rhythm hint at a South American origin. My notes on the music are mostly adjectives: astringent, swooping, vigorous, slashing, scratching and sparkling. The orchestra’s sound was brilliant and clear, except where cloudiness was needed from high harmonics, and the muscular angularity of the more aggressive sections was italicized by the physically dynamic performance of the Criers, who all (save for the cellists) stand while playing.
The second half married odd-bedfellows, placing Villa-Lobos’s Bachianias Brasilieras No. 9 and Ginastera’s Concerto per Cordes, Op. 33 one after the other. The last of his syntheses of Bach and Brazil, the Villa-Lobos exists in versions for string orchestra and for chorus (!). It is a relatively brief prelude and fugue: the prelude moves quickly from an initial statement that could be taken from chant and evolving into a post-Debussian harmonic cloud. The 11/8 fugue is built on a repetitive subject that has a little kick of syncopation near its end. Villa-Lobos’ counterpoint is stodgy, but once he allows himself a bit more freedom he finds some pretty moments – and the simple slow descending counter-melody introduced about halfway through gives some emotional depth to the contrapuntal busy-work.
Ginastera’s Concerto, a four-movement work whose muses are isolation and violence, remains closer to a traditional harmonic framework than many other pieces of its time (it was written in 1965); it does not allow emotional quarter. The opening movement, “Variazioni per i solisti,” gives each section leader an extended cadenza, with the orchestra only occasionally providing response or punctuation. The cadenzas are yearning and pained, and the interjections alternately ghostly or loudly percussive. The “scherzo fantastic,” filled with dry pizzicato and grotesque glissandi, the “Adagio angoscioso” (“anguished adagio”) lives up to its name. The “Finale furioso” sounds dance-like without ever becoming danceable, and far from resolving the tension accumulated so far, it just adds swirls of rapid notes to the fire. The Criers’ stinted not a whit in the requisite brutality while remaining always in control—the Bartòk pizzicati at the opening of the finale were a slap in the face, their crisp violence foregrounded by the wood surfaces in the Calderwood.
The ensemble played the entire afternoon with precision and with nuance despite working as usual without a conductor. They are perhaps more Apollonian than Dionysian: even the most hysterical moments of the Ginastera were exquisitely realized and never risked loss of control. It will be a pleasure to see what this firing-on-all-cylinders ensemble throughout the year: and somehow they will be back at the Gardner as soon as Thursday, with an entirely different (and much more challenging) program including Frederick Rzewski and John Zorn alongside Vivaldi and Shostakovich. I plan to be there.