Adapting to a calamitous time that precludes performances before live audiences, A Far Cry rose to the occasion Saturday night with creativity, grace and a gift for conviviality, delivering a riveting and deeply satisfying soirée concertante. Rather than stream the concert live, they broadcast a skillfully produced and surprisingly intimate program interspersed with brief but lively and engaging Zoom interviews, which they had recorded in Longy’s Pickman Hall. Composer Tio Becenti, who delighted by joining the live chat, anchored the evening’s “journey from struggle and discord to hope and promise” with his 2013 string quartet Forest at Dawn. Following his suggestion, the concert opened with Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor, Op. 122. The Adagio-Allegretto slow movement from Mozart’s String Quartet in F Major, K. 590, and violinist Alex Fortes’s arrangement of George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun concluded the event, in which a dozen of the Criers had participated.
Composed in 1965, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 11 in F Minor is the first in a series of four quartets — the “quartet of quartets” — dedicated to the musicians who formed the prestigious Beethoven Quartet. The death of Second Violinist Vasily Shirinsky on August 16th of the previous year had left the Beethoven Quartet in a state of turmoil, poised to disband. Shostakovich dedicated String Quartet No. 11 to Shirinsky in the hope of rekindling his friends’ commitment to music and to each other.
A Far Cry exploited every iota of emotion in a magnificently elegant, wrenching and transformative performance. From the start, Jae Cosmos Lee’s somber first violin set a tone of expressive beauty in the opening Andantino. The ensuing Scherzo received a marvelously chilling treatment, especially memorable in Sarah Darling’s taught, choppy viola, spiked with threats. A powerfully jarring, dissonant and violent Recitative, with Lee tearing chords from his violin and cavernous depths from Michael Unterman’s cello, led to a brief, nihilistic etude (cf. Les Mouches?) where futility prevailed over violent sobs. In the Humoresque, grimacing and Menippean features in Darling’s viola vied with Omar Chen Guey’s subtly searching 2nd violin, preparing us for the adagio Elegy that constitutes the heart of the work. Here grief reached its peak, but also matured as a capacity to accomplish the vast labor of mourning and burial. As though channeling Shirinsky, Chen Guey’s second violin strove to console the desolate cries of his bereft colleagues grieving together. Finally, Guey’s luminous, overarching ostinato led the way out of darkness. The finale traced a wounded, but irreversible return to daybreak among the living, joining successively in recognition that something of the departed remains alive within us, feeds us, enlivens us, and calls us to continue in the face of tragedy.
Instead of applause, spontaneous expressions of delight, tears and approval flooded the chat room. Symbolically stretching our legs and minds, we were treated to a short but fascinating Zoom interview with Composer Tio Becenti. Born in 1985 on a Navajo Reservation in Southeast Utah, Becenti is largely self-taught: “You can study it all you want, but if you don’t intuitively know what works and what doesn’t, you’re never going to write anything good.” Three composers, he said, inspired him prominently. “From Beethoven, I learned structure; from Shostakovich, I learned expressiveness; and from Ives, I learned spirituality – that pulls it all together.”
All three mentors can be heard in his impressive, even cathartic string quartet, The Forest at Dawn. Becenti also confided that he seeks to create a music that favors “instrospective wandering” as opposed to life’s stressful obstacles; but “in order to know the light, you must be aware of the other aspects.” Both features alternate in the architecture of his quartet.
Like the Shostakovich, Becenti’s The Forest At Dawn comprises multiple short segments played attacca, descending into darkness, living through the anxiety and moments of hallucinatory terror and finally climbing back up to daybreak — metaphorically depicting a “struggle to produce, to continue living”. Because it was the discovery of the evening, and because A Far Cry gave it extraordinary dramatic power, I will treat it in some detail.
The opening Prelude, “sorrowful and in a songlike manner,” is marked by contrapuntal effects. It wanders, dilates and then builds into a climax, then wanes into a sort of tidal feeling. Annie Rabbat (1st violin), Robyn Bollinger (2nd violin), Jason Fisher (viola) and Rafi Popper-Keizer (cello) gave it a spellbinding magic by playing with exquisite unity but also by drawing exceptionally beautiful timbre from their instruments. A first Recitative ensues, stressful and sudden, jarring and puzzling, creating disorientation – or so our performers implied by intensifying their sound and sharply emphasizing vibrating motifs. The Recitative leads into a threefold-Fantasie movement that is introduced by a spiritual, minimalist aria-like theme, but quickly and unexpectedly sinks “Into Darkness,” with descending notes evoking an uncontrollable motion downwards through layers and layers of being, into a darker and darker cave, punctured by frenetic angst in the cello.
The second part of the Fantasie, Night Song, creates an unexpected clearing, with a forcefully majestic and joyous ringing of bells evoked in the viola, as though we had stumbled upon a subterranean city, a lost Atlantis preserved from time in palaces of subconscious memory. Our players gave this section a hypnotically obsessive character, nicely bringing out its fantasmagorical appeal. The third part of the Fantasie is a dance, played here with wonderful tenderness, combining hints of Bach by way of Schubert to create a bitter sweet and strangely comforting nostalgia. Once again, the key lay in the stunning instrumental timbre.
A second Recitative (reminiscent of a modulating bridge in Beethoven, bold and subversive) leads to a “relentless and vigorous” coda, marked by rich patterns. Our players managed to convey energy, joyfulness and a tinge of “dance macabre” mania, beautifully problematizing intimations of daybreak as both a triumphant return and a darkest moment. The climax finale, “the forest at dawn,” blossomed before us with infinite tenderness and promise, hymnal without gods and spiritual without dogma – vast, openhearted, exposed, and fresh as a new beginning.
After two monumental pieces, and a respite intermezzo Zoom discussion of the challenges of arranging various pieces for a chamber orchestra, the second half focused on wisdom-in-serenity-with-open eyes. Miki-Sophia Cloud (1st violin), Alex Fortes (2nd violin), Caitlin Lynch (viola) and Rafi Popper-Keizer (cello) joined forces in a flawless and rapturous version of the Andante of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23 in F Major, K 590 – his last string quartet, composed in 1790 (the same year in which Kant published his last Critique, the Critique of Judgment.) Sweetness, quiet power, cosmic expanse and immediate joy: all of it was there, as the four musicians created a four-voice aria marked by a beautiful unity of purpose spelled out by four distinct and unique perspectives.
The stream concluded with Alex Fortes (1st violin) leading his own charming and very successful arrangement of George Harrison’s folk song, “Here Comes The Sun.” Zenas Hsu (2nd violin), Caitlin Lynch (viola) and Michael Unterman (cello) joined in to convey the complex dissonances and alternating light and shadows of the piece, all held together by a solid rhythmic bass in the cello and a skillful emphasis on repetition. In Fortes’s version, and in the context of the whole evening, the piece spoke of how the frailest beginning of trust grows irresistibly in strength through sharing and friendship. Dawn breaks! Even deep at night, a scattered audience forced to be at home, found themselves cheered, revived, and purged by an interlude of beauty. An enthusiastic ovation in the post-concert chat room reinforced my feelings.
“Dawn Breaks” is available for purchase HERE.
Leon Golub is an astrophysicist at the Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge and has been a lover of classical music for over 50 years.