Diehard fans will tell you college sports excite more than professional ones, the athletes being less predictable, more passionate, invested in pride and intensity, rather than big paychecks. At the risk of being targeted for a hit, I might compare—in some situations—the conductorless chamber orchestra with the full symphony orchestra. The last decades have seen orchestras fold or on the brink of ruin, or perform with Sir Mix-a-Lot to attract new audiences. At the same time leaderless chamber orchestras have arisen: Prague, Orpheus, Australian and others, dazzling us with familiar music in a new way. (Not all of this is new, as conductorless orchestras were the norm before the larger orchestras and larger-scale symphonies of the 1800s came into play, with the concertmaster or keyboard soloist leading.) Regardless, on Sunday afternoon at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the leaderless Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry, with violinist Ayano Ninomiya, made a strong case in an eclectic yet unified “Point of View”.
The 21st century has seen many new nominally unled ensembles spring up, with AFC certainly one of the more exciting. Their egalitarian approach allows them to function more like a quintet than like an orchestra: they are quick on their feet, and they pay attention to one another.
Opening with a curious experiment in sonic perception, AFC set the tone for the concert; the players are just as serious and enthusiastic about Steve Reich’s Clapping Music as they are about Haydn symphonies. It was enjoyable to watch, although I thought that in order to maximize Reich’s famed use of “phase,” it might have been more effective to not have multiple performers clapping each part, as this can distract. That places importance on the relationship among the performers of a single part instead of focusing on the relationship between Part 1 and Part 2, as Reich probably intended. The phase concept serves to pure and hypnotic effect, tricking our brain’s rhythmic-pattern recognition. Nevertheless, it was a fun and slightly provocative way to start—both good things.
Prior to his and Mozart’s more Beethovenian efforts, Haydn’s symphonies largely resembled the Italian sinfonia. In the Symphony No. 22 in E-flat major, Hoboken I/22, this becomes apparent in the first movement, which functions much like a prelude. As its later name Philosopher would suggest, the work is moderately paced. Marked Adagio, it was turned by the Criers almost Andante, which, along with the tick-tock of the strings, evoked a prudential, zenlike feeling. The second movement was probably the highlight of the work, as AFC played with great energy, in part thanks to the charismatic influence of the first violin leader, Robyn Bollinger. Overall we heard a textured and unified conception.
Inspired by English folksongs and the poetry of George Meredith, Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending paints the beautiful bird, serene valley, ruffling breeze, and other images. His fluid writing allows the violin to emerge from the orchestra and then gracefully blend back into the texture. Soloist Ayano Ninomiya presented a spiritual, immersive account of the work. Her bow technique was very impressive, especially the motion and smoothness of her longer strokes. She made great use of a high right elbow, which serves to almost guide the bow to the area of the frog, an area of the bow where most tend to disrupt the phrase. Violinists such as Henryk Szeryng and Yehudi Menuhin exploited the high elbow to help realize their conception of sound. Even on the cello, legendary musicians such as Felix Salmond utilized the same technique. I thought Ninomiya could have varied the use and type of vibrato more in this particular work, though her intense and narrow vibrato was also expressive. Also, I feel closer attention to either hiding shifts or making them part of the expressive language would have served the music. These ultimately are relative factors; Ninomiya’s playing had a hypnotic effect nonetheless. Her majestic Lark, never sounded superficial. The ensemble provided sensitive and lush accompaniment: shining, singing, quivering, whistling along with the argentine solo part.
Norman Dello Joio’s Meditations on Ecclesiastes proved a thoughtful choice to follow the Vaughan Williams. Both take inspiration from text or poetry, yet neither has lyrics. Meditations is sometimes reminiscent of the tonal writing of a young Arnold Schoenberg. However, as soon as the 9th, 11th, and 13th chords appear, it is clear Dello Joio has been influenced by Barber and the Jazz Age. Lyrical by nature, maybe even more so than the music of his mentor Paul Hindemith, his work retains rhythmic and percussive elements as well. After all, it was conceived for a dance commissioned by Juilliard to pair with the ballet choreography of José Limón. The Criers’ interpretation was faithful and wise. Without the intended dance element, the music has a tendency to stand still, but it never bored, and movement after movement came to us with skill, imagination and drama.
For the closer, LDMT (Long-Distance Motorcycle Transit) by the young composer Kip Jones, AFC turned into pretty fair choir, as the score at one point had the ensemble harmonizing with voices as well as instruments. Replete with groovy syncopations, LDMT kept faith with its title; it felt like it could have been a soundtrack to a film about the open road. The interpretative sincerity, youthful enthusiasm and unified approach made a perfect case for the composer.
A Far Cry is celebrating its 10th anniversary “all year long”—and they should. As they invent new possibilities in the classical world, they remind us that unions and tenure are not the only paths to make classical music thrive as an art form and as a career.