IN: Reviews

Destination Amazon


From NEC’s Jordan Hall, A Far Cry traveled 3,000 virtual miles south to the heart of South America for “Amazonia,” featuring composers from the namesake basin. Vibrant, virtuosic, and wholly unexpected, the concert once more demonstrated the Criers’ adventurous programming.

Gabriela Lena Frank wrote Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout (2001) in a semi-autobiographical vein. This six-movement work, in Frank’s words, “mixes elements from the western classical and Andean folk music traditions.” Every movement, each effectively a miniature tone poem, draws from a different South American idiom or instrument. The first conjures up the panpipe with a gentle series of ostinato rhythms. The second is a vigorous evocation of the tarka, a “heavy wooden duct flute that is blown harshly in order to split the tone.” Frank evokes these split tones with sharp dissonances. Underneath, a spirited melody undergoes a series of transformations before ending with a plaintive cry.

The third movement, “Himno de Zampoñas” portrays a hocketed panpipe ensemble with shimmering counterpoint. “Chasqui” orchestrates the motions of the eponymous Incan runner-messenger. Frank lets loose with a jubilant melody resembling a joyous flight across mountainous terrain. The fifth movement, “Canto de Velorio,” is an evocation of the Llorona, or a “professional crying woman.” The movement begins in a melancholy mood but, befitting the title, Frank emulates the Llorona’s talents through a tragic apotheosis and an eerie denouement. Leyendas ends with “Coqueteos,” a charming serenade. Frank imbues this “flirtatious love song,” a style traditionally sung by romanceros, with lush harmonies.

In his brief comments following Leyendas, Crier violinist Alex Fortes described how Frank sought to emulate the integration of folk song and classical forms completed by Béla Bartók through his extensive field work in Eastern Europe. But instead of attempting a direct transcription à la Bartók or other ethnographer-composers like Colin McPhee, Frank primarily borrows moods and colors. In Leyendas, she creates a series of unique soundscapes that aptly blend two cultures, rather than subsuming one under the other. Frank’s compositional talents shine through, demonstrating her ability to use the string orchestra to evoke a guitar at one moment and a flute at the next. In every movement, Frank provided the Criers with an abundance of technical challenges, from striking dissonances that captured the sound of the tarka and the sobs of the Llorona to continual pizzicato and spiccato. But the ensemble met every trial with ease, giving a formidable and sympathetic reading.

Pianist Erie Nakamura joined 11 string players for Jacqueline Nova’s 1965 Doce Móviles (Twelve Mobiles). While Colombian-born Nova is known today primarily for her electro-acoustic experimentation, Doce Móviles is fully acoustic. Here, Nova loosely incorporates 12-tone techniques, crafting a pointillist sound while avoiding the bleakness inherent in much serial music. Nova attempts to orchestrate a mobile’s path by juxtaposing these groups of 12: dodecaphonic music in 12 movements performed by 12 musicians. As if reflecting the unpredictable motions of a mobile, Doce Móviles is a series of tiny fragments marked by snippets of melodic lines fractured and buried under dissonance. But out of the mire arose the occasional bijou, a shy solo melody backed by simple piano accompaniment. These motifs regularly repeat themselves, in direct contradiction to the strictest interpretation of 12-tone practices. Once one’s ears adjusted to Nova’s genre-bending style, later movements even revealed a jaunty underlying rhythm. The final movement, with forceful string playing accompanied by turbulent piano clusters, provided a zinger of an ending. Even so, this is not a work for the faint-hearted.

Harpist Bridget Kibbey in screen grab

Harpist Bridget Kibbey took to the stage to introduce the Boston premiere of Recife, a concerto she commissioned from composer João Luiz. Kibbey had asked for a work to pair with a Bach Harpsichord Concerto, and in Recife, Luiz attempts to combine Baroque counterpoint with the complex Brazilian rhythms of his childhood. Alternating between introspective interludes and dynamic dances, the first movement “Cortejo”—the opening act of Carnival—and the final movement, “Acrobático,” were aptly named, using the Maracatú and Frevo rhythms, respectively. But the star of the concerto was the second movement, “Mar calmo” (calm waters). A meditative evocation, in Luiz’s words, of “the transcendental beauty of Brazil’s northeastern coast,” the gentle plucking of the harp provided a unique sound to the piece. Leaving Kibbey primarily playing arpeggiated accompaniments, Luiz spread floating solos throughout the orchestra.

In all three movements, Kibbey took on cadenza-like sections with vigor. An enchanting and jazzy second movement solo was particularly poignant. A Far Cry’s string and percussion orchestra, playing without a conductor, was far more than simple accompaniment, instead becoming a nimble partner to Kibbey’s virtuosic harp performance. As Fortes explained, however, Recife has even deeper reverberations for the ensemble. The hardwood used in nearly all string bows comes from Pernambuco, a state that stretches inland from its coastal capital, Recife.

For something completely different, the Criers presented Andrew Roitstein’s arrangement of Hector Villa-Lobos’s classic “Alma Brasileira,” the fifth of his Chôros (1920-1929). Per Villa-Lobos, chôros are “always very sentimental” pieces played by chorões, or Brazilian street musicians. A lilting melody gave way to a dramatic climax, with a return to the original melancholy theme at the end. Originally written for solo piano, Roitstein’s arrangement foregrounded the lyrical qualities of the piece, made even more expressive without the percussive sounds of the keyboard.

A Far Cry finally let loose the South American rhythms that lay just below the surface throughout previous works. Mozart Camargo Guarnieri’s three-movement Concerto for Strings and Percussion from 1972 outlined a vibrant beginning, reflective middle section, and a sprightly ending. The addition of drums provided a new sense of vitality to the ensemble, not least through a series of short percussion solos during the final movement. Throughout, accented chords marked off a bevy of dance styles before a jig-like rhythm and dazzling violin cadenza brought the concert to a triumphant close.

In his commentary from the stage, Fortes mentioned that the ensemble’s deliberately heterogeneous music selection, as they based the concert  “ …around the music of the countries that surround the Amazon basin, one of the most diverse places of fauna and flora in the world.” The Criers put the energy and vibrancy of the Amazon River and rainforest on full display in this thoroughly enjoyable performance.

I witnessed this concert via livestream. The video and sound, provided by Immersive Music Project, successfully brought the Criers’ performance into the home. The audio, courtesy of recording engineer Christopher Moretti, sounded crystal clear, while the video gently panned and jumped across the ensemble. A 30-day Video On Demand Digital Event Pass will be available for $20 after March 18th  HERE.

Gareth Cordery, a second-year Ph.D. student in Historical Musicology at Columbia University, majored in Music and History at Middlebury College. He has performed piano concertos with symphonies across the United States, and lives in New York City.

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  1. As a virtual subscriber, I get the videos of Far Cry concerts to watch again and again. I know that when the video for this concert becomes available, I will track down this essay, and reread it section by section. Thank you for writing so well about a wonderful group and thrilling concert!

    Comment by Polly Brown — March 9, 2022 at 8:58 pm

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