A Far Cry reached the midpoint of its 10th-anniversary season on Friday at Jordan Hall, where the ensemble epitomized execution and programming. The show began in the 12th with an arrangement by Crier violinist Alex Fortes of four items from the Codex Calixtinus. An omnibus collection of writings focusing on Saint James, it is the primary source for stories about his life, and served as a travel guide for pilgrims to his shrine at the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. It contains a fair amount of music, and is famous (or infamous) for allegedly containing the first appearance of more than two parts in Western music: Congaudeant catholici by Magister Albertus Parisiensis. Anyone seeking insight into anything “authentic” in this early music would have been disappointed, as it served instead as a quietly spectacular platform for a display of tonal beauty. Over the years the Criers have acquired a distinctive sound, a rich, sleek string tone, single-minded in its centered focus and wielded with consummate control. They have achieved this despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that they work primarily without a conductor and without fixed seating. The opener, Regem regem dominus, made an almost ostentatious display of group skill, an ensemble-wide unison melody that moved with exquisite subtlety and absolute unity. Even the “extremely high level of dissonance” attributed to Congaudeant by Richard Taruskin (who dismisses its claim to three-voice polyphony) took a backseat to the powerful aesthetic impact of the execution. Not a performance for medieval stylistic purists, to be sure: but a confident assertion of mastery by the ensemble.
This skill was put to more conventional use in a compelling reading of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins (BWV 1043) with the solo parts played two young rising stars, Stefan Jackiw and Alexi Kenney (both recipients of Avery Fischer Career grants). The soloists stood out only slightly from the Criers: visually so, in that they stood surrounded by the standing orchestra, and aurally, in that they each projected individually without becoming separate from the ensemble. Embedded in the sound, they gave the opening movement an unexpectedly anxious quality of tense struggle, the Largo an under-the-breath lyricism. They unbuttoned slightly in the finale, rendering it as a scowling but exuberant dance. The two soloists engaged in constant, intense dialogue as they appeared to be listening just as intently as they were playing. This performance made revisiting this chestnut seem necessary.
After the ancient and the familiar came a world premiere, The Conference of the Birds by Lembit Beecher (b. 1980), currently the composer-in-residence with the St. Paul Chamber orchestra. It comes with a detailed back story. Grounded in a Sufi epic from the same century as the Codex Calixtinus as encountered in a graphic novel by the Czech-American illustrator and author Peter Sis, Birds is effective as a pure music. One did not need to know the story of the Conference to admire the proliferation of swooping bird calls in the first movement: the 18 players had individual parts, making for a richness of detail that never became cacophonous. The “birds” become less numerous as the second movement moves from order to disorder and by the end of the third movement only four players remain, the other musicians having “played” sandpaper below them, creating an uncanny rustling static: it was an oddly affecting gesture of self-effacement. If the last moments failed to achieve the “ecstasy” promised by the composer in his remarks, it may have been due to the way the work constantly gestures towards melody but never seems to find it. Perhaps the “ecstasy” of birds, who sing in brief snatches, does in fact sound like this. It is worthy of re-hearing, from a composer worth following.
The second half consisted of Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa, a ovaminal effulgence of minimalism and the most ambitious of the three examples on the 1984 ECM recording that launched Part’s post-serialist career. It is built out of the simplest diatonic material, in two sections: “Ludus”, one of the most serious “games” you are likely to hear; and a “Silentium” filled with a long-dying yearning. Scored for strings, a resonantly clanging prepared piano, and two violin soloists, it again featured Kenney and Jackiw who provided elegant restraint in the extrovert “Ludus”, and breathtaking clarity in the prolonged step-wise lines of “Silentium”. Where they acted as antagonists in the Bach, here they played as almost as one, like a mind divided in thought, exchanging the lead with ease, as if breathing together. The occasional slight wobble of intonation, immediately caught and resolved, served only to remind one of the difficulty inherent in this deceivingly naïve music. Silence did finally descend as the music disappeared into the bass, the hall deathly still. Applause seemed superfluous, though of course it did come, and generously. Even by the high standards of the Criers, this was an especially satisfying evening.
Brian Schuth graduated from Harvard with a Philosophy degree, so in lieu of a normal career he has been a clarinetist, theater director and software engineer. He currently resides in Boston after spending the last 15 years in Eastport, Maine.