Music of Ives and Marshall provide the highlights in A Far Cry’s “Childhood” program

April 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm

By Stefanie Lubkowski

Phyllis Chen gave the world premiere of her “Three Lullabies” with A Far Cry Thursday night at the Gardner Museum.

A Far Cry began their “Scenes From Childhood” program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum with a sublime rendition of Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question. While it is traditional to place the string section on stage and the winds and trumpet offstage, A Far Cry flipped this practice Thursday night. The placid, sustained string material floated in from the foyer of Calderwood Hall and the winds interrupted with their contentious lines from the three balconies in the hall. This altered staging gave the piece an unexpectedly intimate and moving feeling.

This sense of sincerity, dedication, and depth was matched by the final piece on the program, Ingram Marshall’s Evensongs. While certainly not revolutionary, Marshall’s work demonstrated an unpretentious beauty built of complex chord voicings and exquisitely rendered gestures. At the beginning and in between movements, an electronically processed track of music box melody and the voice of Marshall’s own young son peeked out from the string orchestra.

The instrumental writing provided the most interest, from the quivering trills and slowly oscillating harmonies of the Prelude to the long, meditative accumulation of sound in the final movement, “A Wanderer’s Night Song,” which subtly referenced the eponymous Schubert lied. In between, A Far Cry gave well-articulated yet emotionally invested renditions of Marshall’s hymn tune canons and an amazingly spacious and biting performance of “D’s Canon and Dance,” an homage to Shostakovich. Throughout, the ensemble was at its most un-self-consciously intense and earnest and achieved its richest sound.

The three pieces in between these two wonderful performances were more mixed, some predictably entertaining, and at worst, uninspiring. Felix Mendelssohn’s adolescent effort String Symphony No. 1 in C Major followed the Ives. This three-movement work is a perfect example of Mozartean style and structure, dominated by the energetic melodies of the first and last movements. These were rendered with a restrained energy and delicate grace that carried no risk and little excitement. Likewise, while the middle movement displayed some of Mendelssohn’s romantic leanings with its darker minor melody, the ensemble stayed on the safe side of the music’s stormy undertones.

Ethan Wood’s re-imagining of Mozart’s Ah! Vous direais-je, Maman variations read like a panorama of historical style, from Mozart to Mahler, all through the lens of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. A Far Cry displayed an admirable ability to seamlessly move from crisp classical textures to lush Romanticism in this entertaining yet unimpressive diversion.

Toy pianist and composer Phyllis Chen’s Three Lullabies, written for A Far Cry, was the centerpiece of the program, heard Thursday in its world premiere with Chen as soloist. In contrast to Dinosaur Annex’s recent performance of her rhythmically and timbrally compelling work Hush, Three Lullabies proved rather disappointing. While the toy piano, music box, and electronic loop melodies of these three pieces were extremely attractive, there was little exploration of the special timbres Chen works with, and the string ensemble was given little opportunity to interact with the solos. It seemed a shame to bring such novel instruments into the ensemble only to give them a role identical to that of a traditional soloist.

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