Opening the Gardner Museum Concert Series this Sunday, the Chamber Orchestra-in-Residence, A Far Cry, delivered very much as I had described them seven years ago, “They can play anything and play it really well. They seem to really like each other, and their love of music is palpable, moreover they got me to like music I imagined I would heartily dislike.”
When I heard that the ensembles latest addition was Boston’s beloved (and crazy-busy) cellist, Rafael Popper-Keiser, I decided it was high time to hear them again. Readers may have noted my three months off from reviewing during which time I also took a break from concerts. Severely tested thereafter by hours of hurricane-watching and worrying, I was grateful that A Far Cry deeply soothed, impressed, and delighted.
An immensely successful cooperative venture, A Far Cry is a democracy at its best. Different members (there are 17) collectively choose the repertoire for each program, and the various string players constantly rotate chairs. Sunday’s program was introduced by its curator, violinist Jesse Irons, who introduced his heartfelt tribute to three violinist-composers in The Far Cry blog: “Living in the sound world of the great violinist-composers of the first quarter of Century #20 the past couple of weeks has been amazing and inspiring. From ambitious teenage Enescu to elderly nostalgic Ysaÿe by way of impeccably suave Kreisler, it’s such a special way to ring in the beginning of our 11th season.” The three violinist/composers followed the path of the great French and Italian virtuoso violinists such as Locatelli and Corelli who wrote prolifically for their instruments since the 1700s. Later, Paganini surpassed them all in his virtuoso writing for the violin, which holds up two centuries later.
The very lively Scherzo from Fritz Kreisler’s String Quartet in A Minor (1919), as arranged for chamber orchestra by Alex Fortes, dramatically awakened those who might have considered napping. My guess is that while most in the audience were familiar with Kreisler’s gems of transcription for violin, few had heard, or heard of, this quartet. This sampling made, at least this reviewer, anxious to hear the rest of the quartet.
Eugène Ysaÿe (1858-1931)’s lovely Harmonies du Soir, Opus 31 (1924) has been described by its composer as “a messy doodle of a manuscript written in light pencil.” On the last page, still in the author’s hand, and just before his signature, we read “this poem, sketched in Cincinnati in 1922, was lost for two years afterwards. I found it again in May of 1924 and finished it at Le Zoute.” (his getaway on the Belgian coast). Then as a postscript: “Executed at Her Majesty the Queen’s October 29, 1925.” The original Ysaÿe Quartet was reassembled for a private performance for Queen Elisabeth of Belgium, an amateur violinist who had studied with him and became a lifelong admirer and supporter. Ysaye is perhaps best known for his 6 Sonatas for solo violin, Op. 27 (each dedicated to a different famous violinist and written in their corresponding styles) Sonata No. 1 (Joseph Szigeti) Sonata No. 2 (Jacques Thibaud) Sonata No. 3 (Georges Enescu) Sonata No. 4 (Fritz Kreisler) Sonata No. 5 (Mathieu Crickboom) Sonata No. 6 (Manuel Quiroga). Both Kreisler and Efrem Zinbalist, Elman, Szigeti, Enescu, and later, Milstein considered him the master of us all (notre maître a` tous). Harmonies du Soir, a sultry, lush nocturne (of sorts) for strings, was a real (lovely) discovery for this listener.
A Far Cry next took on a string arrangement of George Enescu’s (1881-1955) Octet for Strings in C Major, Op. 7 (1900) deftly accomplished by Popper-Keiser, who also wrote a fascinating piece about his transcription project on Facebook. The conductor Karl Krueger reported that, when he asked the composer how he felt about having the work played by a larger body of string players, Enescu enthusiastically replied, “That’s how it should be!” When Enoch reprinted the score in 1950, Enescu added a new preface in which he endorsed this option, but with some qualifications: This work can be played with a full string orchestra on condition that certain singing parts [passages chantants] be entrusted to soloists. I leave it to the judicious choice of the conductor to decide which passages are to be played solo. The version we heard channeled real joy. The third Lentement movement contained exquisite melodies, after which the spirited fourth movement (Mouvement de valse bien rhythmée) felt like an awakening from a beautiful dream. The many viola solos of Sarah Darling and the violin solos by Jesse Irons soared with polish in the Enescu.
I love the moments of solo shadings and textural thinning – but when all’s said and done, there’s nothing like the sound of eighteen players pour their hearts out, united in purpose and transfigured by the joy of making music together. Enescu wrote simply,ՙThis work can be played with a full string orchestra on condition that certain singing parts be entrusted to soloists.” “And certainly, the majority of my decisions fell into the category of where to use one player, and where to use a section. Marking a line to be played by a solo player can highlight a moment of dramatic individuality or create one of especial intimacy. In one particular moment, I brought the group down to a solo octet not to soften the texture, but to intensify it by creating a more focused sound—a climactic moment which is eclipsed moments later when the rest of the group comes crashing gleefully in…
One of the trickiest things about working on a work of this dimension is managing the pacing. That’s certainly true for all of us as performers, and it was likewise true for me as arranger. There were a lot of fussy little decisions to make throughout, but there were also long swaths of music (like pretty much the entire fourth movement!) that I left entirely untouched apart from bass/cello redeployments. This was partly because the sweeping, slightly maniacal waltz that is the fourth movement lent itself so well to orchestral fullness, and partly because I wanted the overall arc of the entire piece to have as its ultimate goal, the glory of the entire ensemble playing continuously. I love the moments of solo shadings and textural thinning – but, when all’s said and done, there’s nothing like the sound of 18 players pouring their hearts out, united in purpose and transfigured by the joy of making music together.
I couldn’t have said it better myself. The joy generated by this ensemble makes it worth hearing at every opportunity.
Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. She writes about classical music and books for The Arts Fuse. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.