The extraordinary musicians of A Far Cry traveled far and wide through the agency of composers channeling cultures foreign to their own. Corigliano, Rameau, and Vivier evoked worlds far from their homeland in the first half. The second witnessed the world premiere of a Cantabrigian’s colorful and enlivening new work creating a musical image of a distinguished writer from the 17th-century Ottoman court. Both the variety of musical styles and the well-known ability of the “Criers” to forge a uniform, sonorous ensemble kept Friday’s Jordan Hall program lively throughout.
Since John Corigliano set Baudelaire’s L’Invitation au Voyage for a capella chorus in 1971, several arrangements of his followed. A Far Cry found in the composer’s arrangement for string orchestra, a gentle, sweetness with lush sonorities, largely homophonic in texture.
Rameau titled his third opera, of 1735, Les Indes galantes (“The galant Indies,” or, perhaps more helpfully, “Love in exotic places,” since at that time the word “Indies” could be applied to many intriguingly distant locales. Its dance music included many examples purporting to represent various parts of the world; in productions during Rameau’s lifetime, the selection of dances and vocal numbers often changed. We heard dances covering much of the world (the notes referred to an island in the Indian ocean, South America, the Middle East, and North America). This last example, a Danse des sauvages, the “savages” being several Native American tribal chiefs who had been brought to the court of Louis XIV in 1725, reflects one of the earliest examples of New World influence on the culture of Europe. For this work the fine harpsichordist Peter Sykes took on the basso continuo. The string players gave a great visual as well as aural show with their impeccably timed, yet highly stylized bowing.
The remarkable Canadian composer Claude Vivier was tragically, murdered in Paris in his mid-30s. In 1976 he traveled widely in Asia. His visit to Japan led to a late work for string orchestra, Zipangu (the name given to Japan during Marco Polo’s time). Vivier described the use of a single melody (which, frankly, was not immediately evident) to which he applies many changes of color, both traditional and unusual. Often the sections of the ensemble move in blocs of dense sound, “blurred” (to use the composer’s term) by occasionally by exaggerated bow pressure, which prevents the aural effect of normal harmonics. Everything moves slowly, often almost in stasis, with only a gradual, non-obvious, approach to the sustained close.
The afternoon’s one real hit filled the second half, A Gentleman of Istanbul: Symphony for Strings, Percussion, Piano, Oud, Ney, & Tenor by the Istanbul-born, Cambridge based Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, a musical polymath who works in classical music, jazz, and Turkish music, all of which were evident in his symphony. Sanlikol also performed in four capacities—playing the oud (lute), piano, ney (end-blown flute), and singing.
Sanikol took inspiration for his four-movement symphony from an Ottoman traveler, Evliya, from the 17th century, who wrote an extensive travel account of his experiences in many different cultures and locales. His book encompasses a very wide range of experiences, possibly wider than that of any traveler, of any culture, in the period. As Sanlikol explains in his essay, “Indeed, as these days, the term ‘Muslim’ often conjures up stereotypical assumptions, it is this expansive cosmopolitanism found in Evlyia’s world that inspired me to compose this concert piece.”
Though filled with a rich variety of tunes, rhythms, and sonorities in a variety of styles, it does not attempt to recreate 17th-century music, but rather to evoke different periods including the modern world. The first movement (“On clocks and bells of Vienna”) is an Allegro in sonata form, characteristic of a first movement, though colored by the inclusion of the non-western oud. In some ways the slow movement is the biggest surprise. “The death of Kaya Sultan” is a jazz ballad with a solo piano part reminding us that Sanlikol studied jazz composition at Berklee. The third movement (“The vegetarian dervishes”) is in triple meter, alternating between three and six beats, and featuring Sanikol on the ney. Finally, during the course of the fast-moving finale called “Alexander the Great—Devr-i Kebir” the composer sings a text drawn from the Koran. The members of A Far Cry enthusiastically entered into the multitudinous spirits with the help of guest percussionist George Lernis, whose part played a stunning and essential role in evoking the various moods. The audience response was enthusiastic and lasting.
It is worth noting—since the experience (for me) is so rare: the entire concert was streamed live, and can heard HERE through Friday.
Steven Ledbetter is a freelance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.