On Saturday evening, the JP Concerts series filled the pews of St. John’s Episcopal — and the parking spots in the surrounding area — for the latest offering from their homegrown ensemble, A Far Cry. Seventeen Criers played parts of the Op. 6 sets of concerti grossi of Arcangelo Corelli and George Frideric Handel. Three concertos were selected from each set of twelve, reflecting the spirit of the Advent season with Corelli’s beloved Op. 6, No. 8, “written for the night of Christmas.”
A master violinist and composer, Corelli coined the term “concerto grosso” for a work in which a smaller, soloistic concertino group works thematic material in contrast with a larger, orchestral ripieno group.7iiiok Corelli’s Op. 6 was his magnum opus, published a year after his death in 1714. A quarter century later, Handel published his own Op. 6, inspired by Corelli’s example. Both sets are written for string ripieno, with a concertino of two violins and one cello, and both sets use the concerto di chiesa form, alternating slow and fast movements in forms running to five and six movements per concerto. A Far Cry alternated between Handel and Corelli concertos, offering three different concertino groups in a different arrangement for each concerto. The orchestra arrayed around a central harpsichord continuo, with first violins and violas to the left and second violins, cellos, and double basses to the right. They played on modern, steel-strung instruments, with a mix of modern and Baroque-period bows and bow grips.
The concertino group for Handel’s concerto in G major, Op. 6, No. 1 was Omar Chen Guey leading first violins, Jae Cosmos Lee leading seconds, and Loewi Lin leading cellos. The concerto opened with a short stately introduction and a sprightly Allegro, and featured deft concertino continuo from Lin. The third movement Adagio had lovely suspensions and unison trills from Guey and Lee. The fourth movement Allegro displayed nifty three part counterpoint between the two violin soloists and the ripieno group, stopping on a dime to close on a quiet restrained chord. The final Allegro was a jaunty triple-time dance with a nice mix of call and response and parallel third duet between Guey and Lee.
Lee addressed the audience after the first concerto, telling of Corelli’s prowess as the “Eddie van Halen” of his age, and relating anecdotes about Corelli and Handel sight-reading each other’s compositions while playing in the same orchestra in one legendary meeting. He also explained the rationale behind the program design, building the program around the “Christmas Concerto” as a sort of string orchestra “Christmas caroling.”
The Criers shuffled for Corelli’s concerto in F major, Op. 6, No. 6. Jesse Irons took the first violin lead, Annie Rabbat took the second violin chair, and Michael Unterman led the cello group. The opening Adagio had the form of a harmonized church hymn, with Irons offering subtle embellishments during repeats. The second movement Allegro showed off expert ensemble phrasing and nimble solo shredding from Irons and Rabbat. The Largo offered a set of lovely stacked suspensions and a sound carefully built from bass to violins. Guest Crier Ben Katz negotiated a tasteful harpsichord cadenza which marked the transition to the fourth movement Vivace, in a lively triple time with the ripieno group working nice echo effects with dynamic contrasts. They launched without pause into the final Allegro, galloping quickly but then pulling back to a deft pizzicato to finish.
Rabbat and Irons switched sides for Handel’s concerto in e minor, Op. 6, No. 3. A stately Larghetto alternated between concertino and ripieno rapidly and smoothly with a gradually quieter dynamic. The rocking 6/8 Andante was a fugue on a dissonant theme, which the Criers milked for all its piquant weirdness. The Allegro showcased a restrained solo from Rabbat, and nice group dynamic shaping. The Polonaise had droning, bagpipe-like open fifths from the bass strings which intruded delightfully rudely upon a more delicate high string figure. The short, triple-time Allegro ma non troppo that concludes the concerto offered more lovely call and response and unexpected key changes.
After an intermission, A Far Cry reassembled behind concertino group Alex Fortes (first violin), Miki-Sophia Cloud (second violin), and Karen Ouzounian (cello) for Corelli’s Op. 6, No. 7 concerto in D Major. The slow opening featured a tightly integrated give-and-take between the concertino violins Fortes and Cloud and the ripieno strings. The second movement Allegro had violin interjections coloring a steady walking bass. The following Adagio had more rapidly dovetailed interplay between soloist and orchestra groups, then a fugal Vivace offered rhythmic counterpoint as well, where each section’s theme getting its strong beat on a different beat of each measure from the other sections. The final Allegro brought the concerto to a spirited close.
Fortes and Cloud switched first and second leads for the F major concerto Op. 6, No. 2 of Handel. The first Andante larghetto showed off Ouzounian’s high-wire cello continuo playing. A series of dramatic pauses at the transitional cadence recalled the transitions in the choral movements of Handel oratorios. Then in the Allegro, Cloud and Fortes nimbly chased each other and duetted in parallel thirds, and the orchestra closed with a resonant, ringing chord. The third movement Largo showed a striking contrast between the dotted-chord ripieno and the high trilling concertino violins, and the concerto concluded with a bracing, contrapuntal Allegro ma non troppo.
For Corelli’s Concerto fatto per la notte di Natale in g minor, Op. 6, No. 8, Lee returned to the first violin, Guey to the second violin, and Lin to the lead cello. Tempos were brisk, with sharply articulated chords in the opening Vivace and the first of many exquisite dissonant suspensions in the ensuing Grave. Lin had technique to burn for the impressively fast-moving concertino cello part that served as harmonic underpinning while Lee and Guey stacked one suspension after another on top. The lovely Adagio was taken at a quick clip, giving it a stately dance-like pulse, setting up a fast and furious Allegro with a deft, steady crescendo build, then an Adagio reprise with more tasteful ornaments from Lee and Guey. A quick triple time Vivace and a savagely articulated Allegro had deft duetting and striking contrasts of loud and soft. The closing Pastorale uses a shepherd’s tune reminiscent of the Pifa from Handel’s Messiah, and the open fifth drone had a wonderful hurdy-gurdy twang.
All in all, it was a lovely concert of six agreeable concertos, ably dispatched by Boston’s premiere leaderless string orchestra. And yet, something bugs me about this concert. Past concerts that I’ve heard with A Far Cry have featured cunning, thoughtful programming and execution that is both immaculate and creative. It was fun to watch the exchanges of glances and gestures among the Criers. But the ensemble was not fastidiously tight, and not as exquisitely tuned as at other concerts. The selection of Handel’s Op. 6, Nos. 1-3 and Corelli’s Op. 6, Nos. 6-8 smacks of expedient programming choices rather than careful design. Perhaps I’m being too picky, but then, A Far Cry has set itself an extraordinarily high bar to measure up to.
A Far Cry’s “A Tale of Two Sixes” program will repeat at a sold-out Calderwood Hall at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum on Sunday, December 6 at 1:30 p.m. And you’ll have a chance to hear this program again, when recordings from the two concerts are broadcast on WCRB and streamed from on Sunday, December 13th at 7 p.m. And they’ll be back soon, collaborating with Gabriel Kahane, exploring the music of Franz Schubert at Jordan Hall on Friday, December 18th.