“Guardians of the Groove” kicked off 2018 for A Far Cry’s residency at Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum Sunday with works by Lully, Sufjan Stevens and Dvořák. Across the street, at the MFA, a large luminous sign states “All art has been contemporary art.” A Far Cry’s bold outing made clear that all musical art is likewise.
Lully’s pastorale-héroïque Acis et Galatée was his last major completed work (1686). If you tend to think of Lully as formal and stodgy, the instrumental suite performed by Far Cry would disabuse you of that notion. This was foot-stomping, chain rattling, rhythmic bass thumping Lully, full of high spirits, playfulness and self-satire. The nine selections in this suite hit the main elements of the story in a concise 20 minutes. The majestic French overture came across with grit and intelligence, the pastoral dances disclosed subtle regional flavors, and the celebration of fêtes galantes shimmered carefree, with triangles and birdsong. The malevolent appearance of the heavy, brutish Polyphemus, hoping to win Galatée by means of his riches and power, received a nicely threatening tinge, almost a parody of the French overture form, or a lesson in what majesty is not. Randy Zigler’s double bass, backed by Ryaan Ahmed’s lute, rendered Polyphemus’ s self-important aria with comical gravitas, but without denying the murderous danger of rejected vanity. The two successive marches were spirited and marvelously complex in rhythm. After a tender aria praising Acis and Galatée’s love, a reflective Passacaille served to convey Acis’s transformation into a flowing river, as though Love were Majesty in its own right, deserving a French overture ushering in a golden eternity. Lully’s suite, in effect, succinctly conveyed the difference between mutual love based on the heart’s consent and unwelcome advances –then and now.
The high point of the program was a four-movement suite entitled Run Rabbit Run, by Sufjan (SOOF-yan) Stevens, arranged by Michael Atkinson.
In 2001 Stevens issued an electronic music cycle entitled Enjoy Your Rabbit, on the Asthmatic Kitty label. The cycle consisted of 12 “Year of…” songs based loosely on the Chinese zodiac, plus a (non-satirical!) 13th named Year of our Lord. Feeling the absence of live musicians in the original electronic album, Stevens sought arrangements for string quartet from six different New York composers, including Michael Atkinson. The new version, Run Rabbit Run (featuring a hare on the cover) was recorded by the Osso String Quartet. In 2011, the NYC Ballet commissioned Atkinson to orchestrate seven of the movements for a new ballet, and then in 2017 he arranged four of the movements — Year of the Ox, Enjoy Your Rabbit, Year of Our Lord and Year of the Boar — for chamber orchestra, the version the Criers performed.
The suite opened with Year of the Ox, creating sounds imitative of the original electronica, but which quickly moved to a distinctive edgy sound wholly true to the character of live strings, with joyful leaping, a long pause, and then frenzy. Somehow, invisibly, miraculously, the soul of work invaded the room, snorting, straining, mechanical, muscular, repetitive, rising above Philip Glass elements to form its own organic wellspring of life. The second piece, Enjoy Your Rabbit, was agitated, insistent, the sound of running scared, with nervous bowing creating something like a vertiginous flight response that doubled as energy. Year of Our Lord, most moving and heart-felt, sent a soft hymn with downward shadows into the background, as cosmic wounds audibly healed, as the orchestral group reached choral unity. But a single lone voice emerged above, Blakean in its dusky radiance. The final movement, Year of the Boar, split the orchestra in two to create a mad Totentanz: saturated with lust and sweat, and fiercely purposeful, it headed to catastrophe. Long sustained orchestral chords on one side and high-voiced short phrases on the other finished it off. Frightening stuff. This is what Vivaldi must have sounded like to his contemporary audiences.
Dvořák’s big break came at the age of 36, in 1877, when Brahms, a juror for an Austrian state award, saw the Serenade for Strings, along with several other Dvořák works. He famously took the young(ish) Czech composer under his wing and took it upon himself to help jump-start his younger colleague’s career. A Far Cry performed a recently-discovered original version, restoring cuts made by the publisher, mainly a viola solo in third movement and approximately 100 bars in the final movement.
From the opening, A Far Cry brought out the Serenade’s liveliness and freshness. In the first movement, the players nicely emphasized the pulsating undercurrents beneath the lyrical main theme. Especially delightful was the clarity of the interplay between the sections of the orchestra, with cross-currents and counter-voicing throughout. The Criers skillfully teased out the rhapsodic elements and brought them to vivid life.
In the Menuetto, they beautifully exploited the “con moto” to allow phrase A to evolve from irresistible to self-abandoned and then wisely to resolute. The scherzo, with its restored viola solo, alluded subtly back to operatic forms, trapped in a comedy of manners, more tender than jocose but bright and turning lyrical as though unstoppably perennial. The larghetto, in turn, sounded expansive, evoking a wider, free, natural plenitude.
The finale opened with bursting energy and vitality, tinged with alarm. The ensuing accelerandos accompanying crescendos and decrescendos conveyed a commanding future approaching in a whirlwind. The abbreviated recapitulation slowly built and accelerated to fff, ushering in the soft, surprising return of the first movement theme, sad and wistful, pushed aside by a forceful, frenzied cadence. This Dvořák sounded contemporary, and full of promise of things to come.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.