A Far Cry’s intensely thematic and theatrically intense “Four Quartets” took flight from the namesake poem of T.S. Eliot, though none of it was read at Jordan Hall last Friday night. Rather four sparkling new musical essays commented episodically on the poem and we wallowed in a lot of deeply committed heavy-breathing Beethoven. Crier Sarah Darling concluded her in-house essay with the admonition or challenge, “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment you own it, you better never let it go.” We thus wallowed in a lot of deeply committed, heavy-breathing Beethoven.
Eliot wrote of his debt to the composer:
I have the A minor Quartet (Op. 132) on the gramophone, and I find it quite inexhaustible to study. There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.
Eliot’s poem, “Four Quartets,” begins:
Time present and time past
Are perhaps both present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Darling summarized the evening’s theme:
Beethoven inspired Eliot, Eliot inspired Awadagin Pratt, Pratt inspired [composers] Singleton, Montgomery, and Prestini, and then A Far Cry comes in with Beethoven again. Something about all is always now.
The Criers adapted movements of the four Beethoven string quartets for performance by a string orchestra of 18 by variously allowing the composer to speak through his expected four players in quiet or signal passages and amplifying to the full ensemble at other times; and the concertmaster took important solo passages. Because these players have been listening to each other for 17 years, they basically conduct, play, and listen—all the time. Thus, they can deeply engage and take interpretative risks that summon standing ovations from their many devotees after every piece.
A double bass somewhat startlingly announced the beginning of Crier Jesse Irons’s arrangement of the Allegro con brio from Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 19, No. 1, wasting no time in revealing his imprint. Three cellos and then the dozen upper strings carried on fleetly and smoothly over a big dynamic range, with all the accents and emphatics that a longstanding group of individuals, almost all familiar with string quartet stylings, could bring to this expansion of form. Sumptuous in the hall and large of heart, the playing enthusiastically wrapped itself around the theme which cellist Michael Untermann described as “…mind-bending travel though time and space.”
Composer Alvin Singleton’s Time Past, Time Future impressed my sensibilities by materializing out of diffuse æther…unisons in sustained octaves and harmonics created expectancy… the piano entered with what seemed to serve as a tuning note…a frenzy of repeated notes transition to angry motoric urgencies…some Beethovenian agitations and references (including what I heard as an allusion to the Adagio from the ninth symphony), sustained unison, jazzy riffs, mixed meters, heavy down bows, …promising cello pizzes …tremolos…fast scales on the piano, more sustained octaves like the beginning, a melodic sob. .. Pianist Awadagin Pratt cued us to his status as a member of the ensemble by pointing the tail of his glossy nine-foot Yamaha toward the back of the stage and his back towards the audience. Resplendent in dreads and colorfully decorated white shirt, he received a standing ovation.
Singleton found Eliot’s poem moving for its
…discussion of time, its elasticity, and that it belongs to no one. … Time Past, Time Future paraphrases the Eliot text, and at the same time it raises questions about my own work’s relation to time and timing. … [It] begins with elongated note values, seemingly drifting in space without a beginning or end. The pace begins to quicken, as a multiplicity of rhythms and styles pass by in time, taken in by the listener as the still point. Evoking an ABA structure, the sustained hovering from the beginning returns, and ends with a whisper on an unresolved dissonance.
Completely satisfying in Crier Annie Rabbat’s expansion, the Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando from Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 7 in F Major, Op. 59, No. 1 II., made a tremendous impact. Completely lived-in, warm, and sometimes searingly hot-blooded, it reveled in graduations of dynamics…and we loved those arm-twisting tremolos.
Jessie Montgomery’s Grammy-nominated Rounds for solo piano and string orchestra created a dappling watery world, as Debussy met Glass in repeating figures. At times we heard a very strong metric four with threes wanting to interject…the moon rose over the water in rolling shimmers…round and rondelet…sweeping…serene…scene painting if not intelligible story telling…emotive, nostalgic middle section repeating with difference…quiet coda…furioso, the piano disgorged scales, arpeggios, octaves, ostinatos and delicate ornamentations (up to this point Pratt hadn’t expanded to full-scale virtuosity)…then back to the quiet beginning with more Glassian figures… A well semaphored climax signified dramatic closure.
Montgomery described the organization of her diverse episodes that responded to Elliot:
I set the form of the work as a rondo, within a rondo, within a rondo. The five major sections are a rondo; section “A” is also a rondo in itself; and the cadenza – which is partially improvised by the soloist – breaks the pattern, yet contains within it, the overall form of the work.
To help share some of this with the performers, I’ve included the following poetic performance note at the start of the score: Inspired by the constancy, the rhythms, and duality of life, in order of relevance to form: Rondine – AKA Swifts (like a sparrow) flying in circles patterns Playing with opposites — dark/light; stagnant/swift Fractals — infinite design I am grateful to my friend Awadagin Pratt for his collaborative spirit and ingenuity in helping to usher my first work for solo piano into the world.
The arrangement of the Larghetto espressivo; Allegretto agitato; Allegro in Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 IV, credited to A Far Cry, with its intensely threatening dolor, upped the ante to the most symphonic levels of the evening. We particularly reveled in the extremes of angst and urgency from the basses. Eventually clouds parted for an Allegro send off―taken almost as a smiling scherzo.
Paola Prestini’s Code, the fourth work of the evening commissioned on behalf of Pratt, provided the most dramatic cadenza for the pianist. I sensed how the work opened with ppp harmonics, pizzes and downward glisses sounding like distant foghorns. Initially, the piano pounded ruminatively…strings made a glistening Hollywood sound…dancing motto announced…a modified Dies Irae…soft-loud-soft moodiness…repeating keyboard ostinatos, beginning in rolling thunder bass…fluttering mosquito tremolos…portending something…that big piano cadenza with trills expanding into double trills in octaves and money-note arpeggios…golden dawn with raindrop glisses…ending where it began in near silence.
Prestini explained the episodes:
Inspired by the relationship between T.S. and Emily Hale, this pianistic ode is dedicated to an invented love with an eight- letter name. Each section is led by different motives that are built on musical depictions of the letters of the name translated into notes. …The piece is further enveloped in an arc of ascension, as these frozen moments actually exist in the framework of a life and societal movements. And I believe that our current moment is upward in its trajectory in terms of goodness and clarity.
Thank goodness we’d had plenty of coffee before enduring Beethoven’s relentlessly self-important (and of course actually important) Heiliger Dankgesang, from Op. 132. Who but Beethoven could have suffered an illness and recovered from it so titanically? Deliberate and profound, the Criers depicted the course of illness and recovery―every step forward and back―with a metaphysical depth of feeling. Sometimes the upper strings went into a senza vibrato mode against a more vocal cello section. Then swelling and vibrating, the irresistible figures repeated with differences. Time and timeline seemed caught in a tender embrace as the players evoked both Beethoven’s vulnerability and fully justified self-importance as they sent God this immortal but overbearing thankyou note.
In sum, Elliot was pulling strings from far in the background, since we heard not a word of his poetry which might have convinced us of the inevitability of any of the modern responses, or for that matter, explained the choices of the first three Beethoven quartet movements. Absent some Elliot readings to center the generous affray, the evening cohered because Pratt’s commitment to the broad theme and the Criers’ powerhouse advocacy for all they purveyed.
See my 2022 interview with the pianist-composer HERE. For more on Eliot’s Four Quartets, enjoy the BMInt essay HERE.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer