A Far Cry gives winter a terrific warmup with vibrant Nordic fiddling

February 22, 2015 at 12:16 pm

By David Wright

“Jämtlandssägen” by Johan Tirén.

“I have to admit I hoped it would be a hard winter,” double bassist Erik Higgins of the conductorless string orchestra A Far Cry told the audience at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain Saturday afternoon.  “So you can blame me.”

Higgins said he only wanted a suitably frigid and snowy backdrop for the program he had assembled titled “Aurora Borealis,” a selection of winter warmers with a pronounced Scandinavian accent.

He got all that and more.  And yet somehow, despite crippled transit and snow-obliterated parking in J.P.’s narrow residential streets, a capacity crowd stuffed the church to hear Higgins’s Nordic novelties.

A Far Cry rewarded the hardy music fans with playing of exceptional precision and enthusiasm as they gave vibrant life to scores by Lidholm, Grieg, Swedish folk fiddlers (arranged by Higgins), and two honorary Scandinavians, Steve Reich and Benjamin Britten.

Indeed, it was the Englishman Britten, born and raised alongside the North Sea, whose Prelude and Fugue for 18 Strings, composed in 1943, proved the most moody and Arctic-sounding selection of the afternoon.

The orchestra played standing up (except the cellos, of course) in the narrow space on the church floor between the first pew and the chancel steps, all but eliminating the gap between performers and audience.  The group’s sonorous, balanced tone, anchored by two double basses, seemed to envelop the listener.  The sight of players bobbing and swaying together, often exchanging looks or smiles, reinforced the auditory sensation of tight ensemble and well-knit sound.

One might wonder what a New York Minimalist composer was doing at this Viking banquet, but Steve Reich’s Duo of 1994 proved to be a foretaste of the infectious folk tunes that came later in the program.  While a small backup band stroked out drone fifths, two violins played a canon that kept slipping out of gear, its cheerful theme going out of phase with itself, creating piquant dissonances amid the pure triadic harmonies.

This amiable music suggested a musical metaphor, which the composer hinted at in his dedication of the piece to Yehudi Menuhin and “the ideals of international understanding” for which the late violinist worked throughout his life.  The road to cooperation, this pioneer of “phase music” seemed to imply, can get a little out of sync now and then.

The fervent octaves of Britten’s prelude exposed the audience to the force of 18 stringed instruments in full cry, so to speak.  But the music soon retreated into wintry musings in the lower registers, and it was deep in the double basses that the fugue subject bounded to life.  Throughout this vigorous section, the ensemble’s expert voicing and pinpoint intonation well served the ancient sound of Britten’s modal harmonies.

The Swedish composer Ingvar Lidholm (born 1921) came billed as the fierce modernist, with the program notes alluding to the radicalizing influence of the Darmstadt experimental school and Higgins telling the audience that, like winter, Lidholm’s music “just grabs you and shakes you.”

In the event, however, Lidholm’s Music for Strings of 1952 seemed to set aside Stockhausen and Boulez in favor of a robust, even lush, dissonance à la Bartók—or even Bernard Herrmann’s classic score for the film Psycho.  Indeed, the players’ superbly controlled yet full-throated performance had the emotional immediacy of a movie soundtrack.

This was music very much “for” strings, calling for full bow strokes, slashing attacks, and soaring tone in the grand manner even as it dished out potent complex chords by the fistful.  Striking melodic ideas abounded, with song-like or dancy motives emerging from the turbulence now and then.  Although the piece was composed straight through without a break, sections in different tempos offered movement-like contrast, ending in a brilliant, headlong finale.

If Lidholm offered a stormy kind of modernized Romanticism, Grieg weighed in at the opposite end of the Romantic spectrum with the poetic, folk-colored lyricism of his Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34.  The players steered clear of sentimentalism in touching renderings of these song transcriptions, dark and mournful in “The Wounded Heart” and ripely nostalgic in “Last Spring,” leaning gently on the aching harmonic suspensions so characteristic of this composer.

If Grieg represented the Norwegian way to “come in and get warm,” as Higgins said, Swedes apparently accomplish the same thing by rolling back the rug and dancing the polska all night long.  A Far Cry closed the program with an exuberant, toe-tapping performance of four dances from the collection of Swedish folk fiddlers Mikael and Mia Marin, two composed by them and two traditional tunes.

Higgins’s arrangement swung big time, and the urge to clap along was strong.  But the urge to sit and relish the band’s rich sound and tight ensemble in the crazy syncopations proved stronger, and the audience saved its clapping for the end—which it did long and loud, partly in appreciation of some terrific music-making, partly in celebration of having licked winter, for one afternoon anyway.

The next performance by A Far Cry will be 8 p.m. March 6 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. afarcry.org617-553-4887.

 

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