IN: Reviews

Robust Reimaginings From A Far Cry

by

Andrea Casarrubios
Shelley Washington

Last Friday night, in the cooling strains of late summer, A Far Cry treated an audience in Jordan Hall to “Reimagined,” four pieces enlarged for string orchestra. Performing without a conductor as usual, A Far Cry’s compelling musicianship and precise ensemble gave a strong opening to its 2023-24 season.

Overture & Chorale by Spanish-born composer Andrea Casarrubios introduced the evening. Originally scored for four cellos, it sounded here from four violas and three cellos. A solo in cellist Francesca McNeeley’s clear, singing tone resonated beautifully in the hall. Voices coalesced in rich counterpoint. Baroque-derived rhythms and Bach-like chorales and modern harmonies mixed to create a lovely apéritif.

The full group of 18 Criers walked onstage to present Say by American composer Shelley Washington. The music began not from any strings, but rather with the 18 voices of A Far Cry singing a nursery rhyme-like tune: “Say it high, say it low…” Throughout, the musicians not only sang lyrics and played instruments, but also used extensive body percussion such as stopping, clapping, and patting. The music’s driving energy had me tapping my foot and headbanging along to the wonderfully lively grooves!

As the program note indicates, Say investigates ideas of identity and belonging, drawing from Washington’s experiences as a mixed-race person. The lyrics referenced different racial identities, while often keeping a round-like idiom reminiscent of children’s songs. This message was hampered slightly by some difficulty making out the words — clearer articulation and more sensitive balance between vocals and strings at time may have helped. And it was unclear what exact questions were raised and answers offered.

Still, I didn’t feel that a definitive narrative or resolution was necessary. Say makes sense existing as a blend of histories and modes of being. The image of a string orchestra is naturally associated with Europeanist traditions, while the rhythmic patterns suggested thoughts of American popular music, which derives extensively from African-American influence. Body percussion as a musical element also has deep roots in African-American folk tradition. And altogether, besides the meta aspects, Say was a ton of fun to listen and move along to, thanks to the dedicated, vibrant performance.

S. Bach’s Chaconne from his fifth partita for violin, arranged by Michi Wiancko for string orchestra, rounded out the first half. This made for a bold decision considering the Chaconne’s monumental reputation as a solo showstopper. The performance took on suitably drama and weigh, lyrically blissful in the major sections, and always surrounded in the descending inevitability of Bach’s voice. Violinist Keiko Tokunaga showed exceptional technical execution and graceful mastery in her solos.

Though this reimagining of the Chaconne was idiomatic and well-arranged, some choices seemed odd. For example, additions of pizzicato and sul ponticello gestures at certain points added timbral color to the music. But with Bach’s compositional idiom—so intricately constructed around notes and voices in counterpoint — I wonder if those features added to the piece or distracted from the composer’s intentions. Still, Bach’s musical identity shone in A Far Cry’s coordination and spirit.

Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet, arranged for string orchestra by A Far Cry member Jesse Irons, constituted the second half. A quartet of four principal players created the opening gestures; when the figure repeated, the entire group joined in. This exchange between part and whole would recur many times throughout the arrangement. Intense drama filled this rendition, especially in powerful unison sforzando chords and loud tuttis supported by low extension Ds in the basses.

The second movement, a funeral march, materialized quietly in the wake of the previous part. Life breathed in throughout the variations, increasing in agitation until an idyllic major section; a dramatic resignation gave way to a tranquil end. Afterwards, a stylish, playful scherzo danced in, surrounding a graceful, winking trio. In these inner movements, A Far Cry evinced wide contrasts in dynamics and expressive landscapes tied together by tight ensemble playing.

Michi Wiancko
Jesse Irons

The brisk finale quickly took the stage, carried out precisely and brightly. Kudos are especially in order to the basses for expert execution of the frenetic triplets. Schubert’s compelling sense of flow drew our ears in, threads of sound finding possibilities and surprises in the air. The music culminated in an exuberant, explosive finish, drawing enthusiastic applause.

Overall, A Far Cry performed the Schubert with high energy and expressive spirit. Violinist Zenas Hsu’s subtle solos never became overbearing; rather they burst with artistic intention and always a pleasure to the ears. Still, some high notes in the first violins faltered slightly, and very occasionally fast passages betrayed rare flaws in rhythmic unison.

Were those minor foibles a consequence of the change in instrumentation? Intonation and rhythmic solidarity are concerns for any arrangement of instruments, but the acoustic specifics around them are different for a soloist, a chamber group, a small string orchestra, and a large one.

More broadly, there is much to consider about the virtues and sacrifices in these rearrangements. At the head of the second half, A Far Cry’s executive director Grace Kennerly spoke eloquently about the wider world of sonic prospects made possible by eighteen musicians. But what is lost? For a violinist tackling the Chaconne, there is the risk of implying the harmonies, the struggle of portraying multiple voices in one instrument. Gaining more performers makes these difficulties much simpler ― but the boldness of the artistic statement then seems diffused somewhat, despite the motives and melodies theoretically being the same. In the Schubert as well ―when the content is expanded for larger forces, there is greater sonic power. But is the musical power still all there? Physically, there is the matter of just-interval intonation being much harder if not impossible with a string orchestra as opposed to quartet. And the intimacy and distinctness of four clear voices in conversation is gone as well. While the music gains an expanded range of acoustic possibilities, the directness, the specificity, and the vulnerability inherent to solo or chamber performance is less pronounced.

That all being said, if there were ever an ensemble to convince a listener as to the artistry and life in these reimaginings, A Far Cry could very well be it. Every time I see A Far Cry, I am amazed by its beautifully coordinated ensemble playing. The ensemble is not just a delight for audiences but also an inspiration to fellow musicians. A Far Cry plays without a conductor, but in a way, they are a group of 18 conductors. Individually accomplished, the players find strength in togetherness, keenly aware of each other and of the whole of the group. Together these manifests in rhythmic cohesion, expressive intensity, and in the joy and pathos they always bring. This night the Criers soulfully invited us into their reimaginings of sonic worlds made possible by 18 artists in expert unity.

Julian Gau is a Boston-based freelancer and writer with a master’s degree in orchestral conducting from the Boston Conservatory. He serves as founder and conductor of the Horizon Ensemble, and resident conductor of the Chinese Music Ensemble of New York. He holds degrees in music and mathematics from Brown University.

2 Comments »

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The reviewer raises the interesting point that rearrangements of solo or chamber works for a larger ensemble may diminish the “boldness of the artistic statement.” I wonder whether we can state that, in general, fewer players (if they’re good!) is almost invariably better, regardless whether the original work is written for 1 player or 100. About a month ago, I attended a concert that was part of the Foundation for Chinese Performing Arts series in Williams Hall at NEC. Ensemble 132 and Sam Hong played Hong’s arrangement for piano quintet of Petrouchka. It was nothing short of spectacular, much more exciting than I’ve heard from any orchestra. I think back to some other memorable performances that have stayed with me: Lukas Vondracek playing the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on solo piano in Jordan Hall. Pictures at an Exhibition in its original form on solo piano (played by any first-tier pianist) vs. Ravel’s (admittedly ravishing) orchestration of it. And what could be more dull than hearing Clair de Lune played by a symphony orchestra? The smaller the ensemble, the greater likelihood that artistic intent will be conveyed. Of course, the great conductors succeed in making the symphony orchestra sound as a single instrument, but I think that supports the thesis that “smaller, when well-executed, is usually better.”

    Comment by Bob D. — September 23, 2023 at 12:57 am

  2. The BMInt reviewer agrees with you about Sam Hong’s Petroushhka. “Hong, noted for his transcriptions, debuted his piano quintet arrangement of Stravinsky’s Petroushka for the second half. After the concert we would say Heiliger Dankgesang for ensemble132, organized here as very seriously intense piano quintet of Hong and friends.”
    Complete review HERE

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — September 23, 2023 at 10:15 am

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