“Treat [Calderwood Hall] as your salon, or as your living room,” cellist Michael Unterman suggested to the crowd revving up for what he called “a Thursday night test kitchen.” Gardner Museum’s resident orchestra A Far Cry’s “The AFC Challenge,” an impressive curation of 20th– and 21st-century music, grew more technically demanding and dissonant (or more gnarly, as Unterman described) as the evening progressed. In asking “Can you make it until the end?” Unterman encouraged concertgoers to come and go as they pleased, noting that the Gardner was a beautiful museum if the music became too difficult for listening.
The first two pieces “threw out traditional themes and opposition, eliminating the need for a problem to be solved within the music.” In Philip Glass’s Echorus, adapted in 2014 from his Etude No. 2 for piano, the composer revisits repetition and meditation, much like in the last movement of his Piano Concerto No. 2 that A Far Cry commissioned and premiered last October. Although the same motive repeats endlessly, the criers managed to embrace musical sameness while adding a subtle, meticulous dynamic shift to each restatement of the theme that added just enough variety to produce a cohesive thread in the work.
Of Nearly Stationary, from John Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts, Unterman noted that Cage removed the composer’s ego from the act of writing, supplying very few notes to hold the composition together. “He allows the audience to feel what they need to feel,” he explained. Cage based his string quartet on the Rasa aesthetic, which is an idea that nine emotions create the range of human feelings, and then added the seasons to each movement. Nearly Stationary embodies a sparse winter.
Shostakovich’s Scherzo from Two Pieces for String Octet Op. 11 ecstatically ripped through the silence of the final moments of Cage, jarring and ferocious in comparison. Shostakovich composed the octet in 1925 when he was just 18, right around the same time that he wrote his First Symphony. Violinist Jesse Irons’s facial expressions and body language led the rest of the ensemble into a snarky conversation that set the tone for the rest of the work. Although the Scherzo was the oldest piece on the program, its interpretation added vigor that made it feel new. Phrases were sarcastically exaggerated with a well-articulated, biting tone. Notable were cellist Karen Ouzounian’s snide moments and violists Sarah Darling and Ashleigh Gordon’s poignant duet. The octet showcased what A Far Cry is all about, bringing life and energy into well-known pieces with eloquence and clarity unmatched by most orchestras.
…AND ZOMBIES from Christopher Hossfeld’s concerto GROSSO crept through the hall, offering a triple fugue that emulated zombies trudging along, each instrument entering to join the cohesive, undead herd. Hossfeld composed the piece after a close family member died, writing to overcome his grief. Humor played a huge part in this, as zombie apocalypses were a huge part of pop culture in 2009. Commissioned by A Far Cry, concerto GROSSO received its second performance on Thursday. Five Movements Op. 5 by Anton Webern followed, with a succinct, thoughtful poem by Darling, which offered a second movement so tender and intimate that it likened itself to Brahms.
A Far Cry took a few moments to exit after Webern, mainly because Ramifications by György Ligeti requires half of the orchestra to tune one quarter-tone sharp. Unterman compared Ramifications to a cloud – although many past composers like Liszt have alluded to clouds, Ramifications’s billowy, vapory wafts sounded like a physical cloud. The ensemble was so precise, with an uncluttered clarity that allowed one to hear every detail. If Ramifications was A Far Cry’s cloud, this performance allowed the listener to feel each structural element of vapor, every crack of thunder, and every bolt of lightning.
In Digestion by Shiori Usui, which had its second performance on Thursday, (dis)embodied the human digestive process, mimicking food traveling through the alimentary canal. Criers likened it to the episode of the much beloved cartoon The Magic School Bus, where a science class shrank in their magic vehicle and let themselves be swallowed whole in order to discover the digestive system. This piece included rattles, growls, pops, eating sounds, cooking sounds, the smacking of lips, burps, and squelches. Although the title leads to some uncomfortable feelings, the composition absolutely delighted, a charming exploration of the body to complete the penultimate work on the program. The closer, Iannis Xenakis’s Voile, does not sound anything like Debussy’s Prelude, coined “…Voiles.” Voile means sail, or veil, and while these words seem equally appropriate in Debussy, Xenakis’s Voile certainly likened itself to sails with its huge gust of noise that flooded the hall, impressively played by A Far Cry.
The criers met “The AFC Challenge” in a signal feat; not a single person in the hall left in frustration or defeat, which the challenge hinted could happen. On one hand, it is not difficult to listen to the Gardner’s resident ensemble, whose performances seemingly never disappoint. On another hand, will the day ever come in which some of the 20th-century compositional outliers become approachable and friendly?
Rachael Fuller is an MIT administrator who has studied piano and music theory. By night, the concertgoer is also a practicing musicologist.