A Far Cry celebrates Cage, silently and in full cry
The silence was golden and the sound was bone-shaking Thursday night in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall as the chamber orchestra A Far Cry celebrated the centenary of John Cage’s birth with music by Schnittke, Haydn, and the gentle master himself.
The three works by Cage that opened the program (all composed between 1950 and 1952) were a study in saying more with less, culminating in a rare live performance of the legendary 4’ 33”. From the silence emerged music that was more robustly cheeky, Alfred Schnittke’s classical burlesque Moz-Art à la Haydn and Joseph Haydn’s convention-bending Symphony No. 45 in F-sharp minor (Farewell).
The latter in particular, with its fiery Sturm und Drang first movement, seemed to shake the hall’s foundations, giving onlookers in the tiny, cube-shaped performance space the sensation almost of being inside the music instead of listening from a distance. Haydn’s restless imagination, admired by scholars and decorously cultivated by conductors, has never sounded more hot, contemporary, and viscerally present than it did Thursday night.
Conceived by Michael Unterman, a cellist in the group, this concert came with program notes and needed no further explanation, but Unterman did so anyway, speaking to the audience of the program’s many “firsts” for the five-year-old ensemble: music by Cage, choreography for the musicians, lighting cues, elaborate stage resettings, even the first use of a baton.
And indeed, as the concert began, the hall’s square floor was crowded with furniture: a complete string quartet setup in each of its four corners, and in the center, a cluster of tall round bar tables bearing a motley assortment of small radios, their power cords trailing down to a power strip on a piano stool.
These latter were the instruments for the first Cage piece, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for 12 Radios. The piece works with “found sound”—the electromagnetic signals that are always in the air around us—and so is impossible to play the same way twice. And yet Cage the composer exerted considerable control; as a member of the group discreetly beat time Thursday night, the other players watched their parts intently and faded their “instruments” in and out as directed.
The result was not the cacophony one might expect from a dozen arbitrarily-tuned radios, but a subtle shaping of sonic space, using a soft stroke of static here, a dab of a woman’s voice there, as the sound audibly moved around the circle of performers, an effect enhanced by the hall’s in-the-round seating.
Cage’s game of twelve was followed by a game of fours, the String Quartet in Four Parts, each of whose four movements was performed by a different string quartet, sitting in its own pool of light on the dark stage. And the subject, of course, was the four seasons.
The inevitable comparison to Vivaldi’s famous piece for strings seemed apt enough in the first movement, “Summer,” although the whispery, vibratoless tone Cage specified in the score evoked a mere vapor of the old master. Even this elusive energy began to dissipate amid the circling figurations and high, flute-like chords of “Autumn,” and “Winter” brought slow, rocking phrases repeated over and over (marked “Nearly Stationary” in the score), relieved only by the occasional two-note cry of a distant bird, in a movement seemingly as interminable as winter itself.
The final foursome had it easier, in a brief Quodlibet (literally, “what pleases”) that celebrated “Spring” with a cheerful, slightly gimpy gavotte. In the end, all four quartets distinguished themselves, realizing Cage’s disembodied string tone and nearly empty soundscape with admirable concentration.
In an exquisite irony, the dreaded baton made its debut with this conductorless orchestra in Cage’s 4’ 33”, originally for piano solo but here presented in an “arrangement” for 13 strings. The wielder of the fateful stick was cellist Courtenay Vandiver, who stood before the ensemble, opened the score to indicate the beginning of the piece, and then stood some more.
After a minute or so, Vandiver turned a page, indicating the start of the second movement. Another minute, another page, and the third movement began. The stage lighting, which had been getting dimmer and dimmer, went to black as she closed the score. Applause.
The tentativeness of that applause was a sign that Cage’s famous silent riddle hasn’t lost its power to flummox us. How should we feel about music that didn’t happen? Or did something happen?
The dimming of the lights during the performance seemed intrusive, a needless gloss on the piece. As for the audience, one could almost hear them not making a sound—nobody wanting to go down in history as the philistine who coughed during 4’ 33”. Finally, a couple of listeners couldn’t stand it any longer, and let loose some good ones during the finale. Cage would have been delighted.
In the darkness following 4’33”, ghostly fragments of 18th-century music could be heard assembling in the opening bars of Schnittke’s Moz-Art à la Haydn. The lights came on low at first, then bumped up to full for a pompous march, fortissimo, and Schnittke’s grand burlesque on some unfinished pantomime music by Mozart was fully under way.
The reason for the curious stage setup, with two full sets of orchestral stands oriented back-to-back, became clear as the lugubrious “slow movement” began, at which point the musicians dashed from one set of stands to the other, playing as they went—a sendup, perhaps, of the way serenades and notturnos were played in Mozart’s time, the band strolling from house to house.
The dancing finale was preceded by an even more helter-skelter rush to the original playing positions. Through it all, the musicians played with verve and humor, at least until the piece’s comically drooping last pages, when a scordatura cello moaned and violins emitted a dirge-like whine and the players wandered offstage one by one, “à la Haydn” in his “Farewell” Symphony.
Nothing to do then but hear the original. That often-told but charming anecdote– the one about the musicians leaving the stage to let their Prince know they wanted to depart the summer palace and go home–is so firmly attached to Haydn’s Symphony No. 45 and its shrinking finale that one can forget that the rest of the piece is some of the wildest, most emotionally daring music of the composer’s Sturm und Drang period.
A Far Cry left no doubt about that Thursday night as, once again conductorless and batonless, they plunged into the maelstrom that is this work’s Allegro assai first movement. In a hall where the ground floor seats are virtually onstage, and the single-row balconies are right overhead, it was like being thrown in the washing machine with a lot of stringed instruments (and horns and oboes) in, well, full cry. A starker contrast with Cage’s emptied-out sound would be hard to imagine.
Following the mania came the depression, a bottom-heavy Adagio for muted violins over rumbling cellos and double basses, with the brighter oboes and horns allowed in only sparingly and late in the movement. Without a conductor or a compelling allegro tempo, the ensemble proved better at tone chemistry than at moving to a well-defined slow beat. They did, however, respond collectively to Haydn’s many subtle shifts of harmonic color.
Likewise, the Menuetto tended to plod rather than dance; however, the players stepped up to the faster, more vigorous trio section, and they really took off in the crackling Presto finale. Then the tempo changed to Adagio and, as always with this piece, the game of catching the players slipping away—hard for them to do discreetly with the audience seated all around them–tended to take one’s mind off the music, where Haydn was doing cool things with harmonic modulations and the changing instrumental texture before finally arriving at the sound of two violins playing.
It was not exactly one hand clapping, but a charming riddle nonetheless, to close an evening full of them.
Sunday’s performance by A Far Cry, with a different program, is sold out. The next concert in the museum’s Avant Gardner series will be the Callithumpian Consort in works by Cage, Cardew, and Wolff on December 20. gardnermuseum.org; 617-278-5156.
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