Intelligencer writers and the entire critic community have repeatedly fallen under the spell of A Far Cry; this correspondent can merely add her voice to their praise choir of rave reviews over the last eight years. Sunday at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the 18-string player contingent made its latest appearance as the Resident Chamber Orchestra. The two “curators” of this concert, violinist Liesl Schoenberger Doty and bassist Karl Doty, explained their choice of three pieces by well-known composers from countries bordering the Baltic Sea. “Intimate Voices,” they felt, “allow us to look inward… There is something about frosty February [that invited us to] explore what happens when the earth is quiet, when we are blanketed with snow.”
I admit to knowing the Polish composer Kryzsztof Penderecki’s 1991 Sinfonietta for Strings (an expansion of his String Trio from the previous year) only through YouTube, and quite frankly, dreaded hearing it. But sitting beside the four violas on the first floor was surprisingly thrilling and engaging. Despite being married to a violist, I had never sat so close to a viola section before (and such a good one—Jason Fisher, Frank Shaw, Sarah Darling, and guest Crier Margaret Dyer Harris), and almost felt a part of the music-making.
It began with a slashing sound Alfred Hitchcock could have used for “Psycho.” Out of this hammering horror emerged one of many moving and beautifully played solos undertaken by violist Jason Fisher. He was soon joined by excellent cellist Loewi Lin, and a bit later by the fine violinist Doty. A middle section featured a three-note ascending pattern in a minor key, and the second and final movement included a fugue theme moving through material from the first movement. The Criers played with their customary passion, superb intonation, and amazingly tight ensemble.
Before their second piece, the Criers thoroughly rotated seating. Their ensemble is as democratic as it gets: everyone at some time, takes charge of everything. They describe their process as “collaboratively-empowered music;” it is an admirable thing to behold and to hear. In my four hearings they have never been less than superb.
Sometimes referred to as a “holy minimalist” because of his love for the Russian Orthodox faith, Pärt wrote the quiet, prayerful 15-minute Trisagion between 1992 and 1994. The title refers to a prayer, “Holy God, Holy Strong, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us,” and the work’s continuous slow, weeping strings with notes moving gently from one note to its neighbor had a deep impact on this listener. It features Pärt’s distinctive tintinnabula structure which, along with the melodic voices, have been identified by Pärt himself as sin and redemption, and Jesus’ mixed ancestry of humanity and Divinity. Experiencing how such an extended stretch of utter calm built extremely slowly in intensity over an underpinning of chant-like prayer utterly mesmerized.
After intermission came the String Quartet in D Minor, Op. 56, Voces intimae by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) in an ingenious arrangement for string orchestra by Crier violist Frank Shaw (who was the first chair violist in this piece). Written between 1908 and 1909, the quartet came chronologically between his Third and Fourth Symphonies. Its subtitle refers to a message in a friend’s score noting that Sibelius had written about three hushed E-minor chords, “voices intimate,” that is “intimate: or “inner voices.” Sibelius composed this quartet, the only one of his mature years, after discovering a lump and being convinced of its malignancy. It turned out to be benign, but his doctor insisted he cease drinking wine and smoking cigar—a harsh order, indeed. The program notes by Kathryn J. Allwine Bacasmot propose: “Not often does a piece of chamber music unattached to any specifically programmatic elements carry such a deep personal note… It is perhaps psychologically a return to the chamber compositions of his youth, memories whispering from deep inner worlds. In the midst of all complexity in music and in life, he writes these three simple chords, otherworldly, calming, centering.” With Omar Chen Guey as concertmaster, the Criers played this five-movement work with great panache.
After the fully expected and fully deserved standing ovation, the Criers complied with a soothing, restful, sweet encore, “Josefin’s Waltz” by the Swedish band Vasen. The Scandinavian sounds sent us off perfectly into a beautiful winter afternoon.