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Together and “At Odds”


Composer JungyoonWie

Conductor-less but not rudderless, A Far Cry’s “At Odds” celebrated the concerto grosso, which pits a small group of soloists against the forces of the ensemble at-large, at Jordan Hall on Friday night. The Baroque form has become an a priori quality of the string orchestra aesthetic and is employed subconsciously throughout the ensemble’s repertoire. But on that night, this oft-neglected amuse-bouche has become the main course as A Far Cry seeks to answer artistic director Miki Cloud’s timely question: What happens when someone stands out in the group? “At Odds” considered this question across genre-defining works by Vivaldi, Bloch, Wallen, and the premiere of a new commission by Jungyoon Wie.

Wie describes her A Prayer for Peace succinctly as “the journey, confliction and my hypocrisy.” The masterfully paced piece is indeed a grand journey. The turbulent cluster chords and wild vibrato of the second movement experienced rejuvenation as effervescent, placid harmonics in the third, and the first movement’s staggered and plodding idée fixe found warmth in the fourth now met with enheartening companion melodies. While consternation can be found throughout the work, perhaps expressed in its fringe sense of tonality, the aleatory texture Wie weaves through a complex use of solo and tutti parts gives the music its most profound sense of conflict. This feeling is not easily shaken even in the fourth movement’s glacial conclusion, with poignant violas alone restating the piece’s opening theme not melodically developed but emotional transformed in the minds of the audience. Had the piece ended with a purely solo texture (i.e. just one viola), the piece would have ultimately conveyed Wie’s sense of loneliness and isolation from the first movement, but the use of the viola section gave the music a sense of self-reliance and empowered individualism conveyed through an earworm of a triadic motive. Her essay only speak of this ‘hypocrisy’ in the context of the final movement, where she confesses to feeling an ‘indifference to the tragedies of others’ as a defense mechanism to ‘protecting the peace that I have created.’ Though Wie does not untie this gordian knot, she does charge the reader to ponder,  ‘is that all that matters?’ The audience responded to the power statement by demanding for a second set of bows from all performers in the middle of the concert and by taking her song with them, humming or whistling it out the door.

The concerti grossi by Vivaldi and Errollyn Wallen that bookended the concert mirrored each other well. The musicians primarily communicated their interpretation of Vivaldi’s Concerto in G Minor, RV 156 through the bodily gestures of swaying and the ‘bob and weave’ school of historical performance. The sea of lapis lazuli, navy blue, and deeper marine tones of their dress evoked storm waves as torrential as Vivaldi’s overlapping, contrapuntal ritornello. They tossed melodies and countermelodies around with the grace of an afternoon game of pickleball. Bassist Lizzie Burns’s perfect pizzicati in the second movement delivered spunky Debussian lightness which graciously underscored the melodic material from the upper strings. Kudos. The first and third movements of Wallen’s Concerto for Piano, Violin, Double Bass and Strings, both unexpectedly marked ‘Allegro,’ harkened back to the Baroque beginning of the evening and brought the concert full circle. The neo-Baroque movements gave the violinists a chance to show off their capacity for fiddling. The second and fourth in turn contrasted with jazzy music that oscillated between Dixieland and free-form. Bassist Lizzie Burns again set the tone for these sections, particularly when she ‘dropped the bass’ (though not her bass) into the final allegro furioso passage. Again, kudos.

Throughout Ernst Bloch’s Concerto Grosso No. 1 for String Orchestra and Piano Obbligato, B. 59, the longest piece of the evening, pianist Steven Beck fluidly moved between roles of soloists or concertist as needed, much like harpsichordist Benjamin Katz’s work in the Vivaldi. Beck effectively produced a variety of flutey or reedy tones from the instrument that complimented the strings (How I wish I had heard such a pallet of colors so excellently deployed from that Steinway at the Ives recital held in the same room and on the same instrument earlier in the week.) Even without the ministrations of a conductor, every player from the well-disciplined ensemble allotted adequate time for Beck to rubato as needed. At several moments, I anticipated a pause and waited for one string to break ranks and play a bit early, but that never happened. The second movement continued to showcase this brilliant balancing of color. The Dirge’s trio (which hardly had the atmosphere of a dirge, maybe grave would have been better) began with a verdant, arpeggiated counter-theme from the violas; when passed to the second violins, the simple theme became insistent in light of the celli’s pizzicati that blended into the pianos mild attack. The solo violin’s ethereal, piercing B6 hung in the air like incense. The tone of the final chord melted into the basses enveloping rumble, poetically complimenting the earlier moment. The solo violin’s F natural (following the C-sharp Major chord that ended the second movement) arrested us for the second half of the Bloch. The latter two movements expressed a certain Copeland-ification, alternating between the ruckus Rustic Dance (perhaps the closest thing to a rodeo in Europe) and an intense fugue animated by the juxtaposition of a spicatto subject and gooey counter. The group teased the audience to clap with the great crescendo at the culmination of the Dance being just a tad weaker than expected. The strength of the chord seemed to flex before dissolving into a quick decrescendo, reminiscent of Dolby audio’s heavy breathing on a VHS tape, but the unbridled finale of the Fugue, complete with the Steinway, brass, and double articulation, finally allowed the audience to clap, to cheer, and to demand another round of bows.

A musicology PhD student at Boston University, Christopher Hodges earned a M.M. in organ performance with Peter Sykes.

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