Returning to its Gardner Museum home Sunday, a forever young and ever refreshing contingent of A Far Cry entertained and challenged us with another outing conceived thoughtfully and executed with commitment. Violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud introduced “Music in Migration” with warmth and emotion in her turn as interlocutor.
In Telemann’s Ouverture-Suite Les Nations for strings and basso continuo, the Criers reached for a satisfying compromise between period rectitude and marriage of convenience with modern orchestral techniques. The Overture opened in dignified refinement, dynamics shaped in phrases rather than discrete steps. Vibrato went into hiding other than at phrase endings. The players neither whined nor scratched, nor did they deliberately bow away from their sweet spots. Only a few upbow swells revealed players nodding to current conceits, whether spuriously or correctly informed. John McKean’s decoratively clattery riffs on harpsichord made us wonder why the piano wasn’t resorted to in this composite interpretation. Rather than taking listeners for a tour of the world, the set unspooled as if on a dance card for a costume ball. In eight festive movements, whether evoking a country hoedown, janissaries or Venetians (Portugais recalled Vivaldi), alarming clockworks or princely ballrooms, Telemann and Criers warmed us up for the intense expressions to follow.
At the core of the afternoon’s theme, A Far Cry had commissioned Elena Ruehr’s first piano concerto for Heng-Jin Park to depict the pianist’s emigration from Korea to the United States at age 10. “After our arrival in the US, the transition was extremely difficult to say the least, with both of us mourning all our losses, neither of us being able to speak the language, my being thrust into an elementary school in a completely white community and being teased for being Asian, etc. etc. Music was the only thread carried over from my previous life to my new life in the US and my only consolation. It became even more personal and dear to my heart.”
Ruehr tells us that her piece incorporates elements of indigenous Korean music and Pansori opera alongside material from Czerny Etudes, which Heng-Jin practiced both as a girl in Korea and during her adjustment to life in America, and seamlessly transforms itself to the richness of Brahms—one of her most beloved Western composers. “No matter where she has been in the world, Brahms has allowed her to feel at home.”
From the estimable pen of Ruehr we expect little angst: her output pleases and reassures. Let it be said straightaway, though, this is a real piano concerto. And Ruehr has vividly captured Parks energetic personality. The composer requires the dedicatee to execute dizzying runs of double octaves and double scales with each hand sometimes playing in a different mode—in other words, nonstop demands that would have taxed anyone less determined and gifted than Park. The orchestra acts as the world around the lonely soul at the keyboard. The concerto opens with sumptuous redolence of the Far East. I could have sworn I heard wood blocks and gongs from the strings as the imagined 10-year-old busily dispatched visions of exercises, indifferent to the sound world of the teeming Asian marketplace about her. Eventually a languid Brahmsian intermezzo tells the tale of Park’s awakening and artistic development. Then a jazzy interlude intrudes before yielding to dreamy wistfulness for Korea. A bold cadenza over pizzes in the cellos and tremolos in the upper strings somehow morphs into a reassuring anthem. The racy finale, enlivened by bright scales and emphatic octaves alongside repeated row fragments in the strings, seemed to celebrate the compleat artist, confident in her mastery. Ruehr’s sturdy, compact concerto looks to have a welcome place in the rep.
Holocaust survivor Mieczslaw Weinberg’s enormous oeuvre (no fewer than 26 symphonies) represents much more than recollection of immense suffering and loss. His five-movement Symphony No. 10 (1968) takes its organizing principle from the form of its concerto grosso first movement, in that solos from all of the section leaders contrast intense individual feeling with powerful larger forces. Weinberg also juxtaposes demanding modern musical language with nostalgia for older forms. Just as we thought the poor composer had wallowed sufficiently in despair, we would hear echoes of klezmer or maybe Britten’s Simple Symphony. In the midst of life we remain in death, indeed.
Solo callouts: Rafael Popper-Keizer’s cello lamented with power, Robyn Bollinger theatrically ascended, virtuosic flights escaping confinement at the hands of the double basses. In the canzona movement, a plaintive theme works its way up the staff from Karl Doty’s double bass, which exploited the instrument’s range of textures and pitches with singular eloquence before it was treated in turn by Popper-Keizer and the decidedly un-shy violist Caitlin Lynch.
By some homeopathic transformation, the level of execution and of interpretative risk-taking staggered, even though guests stood before 13 of the 17 stands and only two original criers appeared. The force abided with the ensemble, as it rose to the work’s challenges and nailed its profundities. Weinberg must have written it in anticipation of A Far Cry.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer