Some offbeat Hindemith, a full-length chamber piece by an obscure Swiss composer, and a string quartet by someone who became famous only when he stopped writing things like string quartets: this is not your typical door-buster program. That St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain was nevertheless full to overflowing—something close to 300 people—was therefore very much a testament to A Far Cry and the following it has built.
The Boston-based string collective long ago earned a reputation for unusually fine playing, and as this concert showed, they haven’t rested on their laurels. They’ve also managed to create a distinctive brand and an audience that has come to trust that their excursions to the untouristed neighborhoods of classical music are well worth taking. That was certainly the case here, with A Far Cry offering both vigor and polish in an entire concert of pieces one might go decades without seeing on a program, all having some connection with Berlin in the late Weimar years.
After developing an enormous reputation during his own lifetime and the decades immediately after his death, Paul Hindemith had by 2000 plummeted to level of obscurity that would have been unthinkable only a few decades earlier. It’s heartening to see an adventurous group known for its adeptness at taste-making bring him out afresh. If neither of the two items on this program, both rarities even among Hindemith’s output, made the fullest case for his talents, they nevertheless rewarded our listening.
The music that brought Hindemith to fame, the work of a serious, careful, phenomenally adept and sophisticated composer, dates from his musical maturity. One can know a lot of Hindemith without having encountered anything from his musical adolescence, a period when he engaged in a sort of carefree flirtation with the avant-garde in German music and theater, at times even indulging in send-ups and practical jokes.
His Overture to ‘The Flying Dutchman’ as Sight-Read by a Bad Spa Orchestra at 7 in the Morning by the Well (1925) is pretty much what the title suggests. A sort of updated, longer, broader version of Mozart’s Musical Joke, this ‘overtur’ outlasts its humor. And yet, unexpectedly, something new seems to emerge from all the carefully crafted wreckage (Hindemith’s scrupulously notated score requires real virtuosity—amateur scramblings carefully crafted by professionals). The clouds of tuneless sawings (the “spa orchestra” turns out merely to be a string quartet) start to feel like an aleatoric sound-texture, and the shreds of Wagner (and, at one point, unaccountably, a Waldteufel waltz) accordingly feel like the remnants of an older order being swept away by the tidal wave of Modernism, shrieking and flailing all the way.
The long, spoken introduction and some hammy antics (of the stumbling-in-late and yawning variety) made for a slow start, but the playing itself—to the extent one can judge in such a piece—was spectacular. Between the broadness of the humor and the novelty of the textures, one could lose sight of the subtlety with which the composer depicts a performance that weaves between control and chaos, and the various ways the players try to bring it back under control. All this came through very clearly via the excellent chops of violinists Megumi Stohs Lewis and Jae Cosmos Lee, violist Jason Fisher and cellist Michael Unterman.
Hindemith’s Eight Pieces for String Quintet date from 1927. Each one is short and has its own character, though the range of character overall is restrained. Rather than adding a second viola or cello to a string quartet, as is more typical, Hindemith adds a bass, then uses it in an usual way, often having it double the lines of other instruments an octave or two lower. The effect is like taking a highlighter to certain parts of the score. With flawless intonation and estimable ensemble, violinists Lee and Annie Rabbat, violist Tanner Menees, cellist Gwen Krosnick and bass Evan Premo brilliantly conveyed the tensions between formality and informality in these little sketches.
Kurt Weill’s String Quartet in B Minor received a truly lovely and attentive interpretation from Rabbat, Lewis, Menees and Krosnick. Weill was only 18 when he finished it (in 1918), the year he also graduated from conservatory and began studying with Engelbert Humperdinck. Some of the smoke of Wagnerism lingers in the corners, and like so much music of that period it seems to be waiting around for the next big thing to happen other than the one that was actually happening, which was Modernism. Yet the quartet conveyed a palpable sense of a musical imagination getting ready to move on to greater things once the rigors of training and the tips of the hat to tradition had been dispatched. One moment in particular, a few bars of carefree melody with a cabaret vibe, looks ahead to Weill’s later work. It would stand out even if you didn’t know who Weill would become. Kudos to A Far Cry for revealing another dimension of a figure we love but perhaps don’t know as fully as we might.
Has Paul Juon’s 1902 Piano Sextet remained obscure because it sounds a bit too much like Brahms? Even if the resemblance is obvious, there’s a lot here to hold the ear. For one thing, other influences readily appear to interesting effect―in particular Fauré―but also here and there Tchaikovsky (understandable for a child of Swiss parents raised in Moscow). Nevertheless, Juon’s style is his own, and he is a terrific composer. The six Criers—Lee, Lewis, Fisher, Unterman, Premo, and the excellent pianist Tanya Gabrielian—made the strongest possible case in a stunning performance, full of life and color, confidence, and engagement—really nothing short of perfection, both technically and musically. May A Far Cry keep finding gems like these and restoring them so magnificently to life.