A Far Cry travels from darkness to light in vivid season closer

May 24, 2014 at 2:45 pm

By David Wright

A Far Cry performed Friday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Yoon S. Byun

A heartless lover, a crazed killer, sturdy farm folk, and a flurry of Finnish fiddlers trod the stage (and the aisles) in Friday night’s colorful program by the chamber orchestra A Far Cry at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.

The orchestra, which plays without a conductor, typically assigns one or more of its members to curate each program. On Friday, double bassist Karl Doty and violinist Liesl Schoenberger spoke from the stage to introduce their charmingly miscellaneous assortment, arranged with the darker-hued pieces first, followed by the more life-affirming ones.

The two musicians, who are engaged to be married, titled their program “Happily Ever After.”

The evening began somberly enough with the mournful madrigal Moro Lasso by Don Carlo Gesualdo, arranged for strings by this ensemble. In addition to living a scandalous existence with all sorts of eccentricities and compulsions (including committing murder), Gesualdo was a card-carrying member of the Renaissance avant-garde, composing music that bristled with chromaticism and outré modulations for an audience of connoisseurs.

Although this composer’s music is often compared to that of 20th-century composers writing in a Renaissance-inspired style, the madrigal performed Friday, with its strange harmonic turns and frequent pauses, reminded this listener more of the later Beethoven in his most unmoored moments. The ensemble rendered it sensitively, seeming to breathe as one.

Bernard Herrmann’s music for the Hitchcock film Psycho is famous for its slashing (excuse the expression) title theme and above all for the shrieking violins of its notorious “shower scene.” These moments were duly noted in the “narrative for string orchestra” that conductor John Mauceri compiled from Herrmann’s score and A Far Cry vividly performed Friday night.

But one was struck by how much of Herrmann’s score evoked not violence or spooky suspense but desolation and loneliness. In long piano-to-pianissimo passages, rustling tremolos and harmonics in the violins were punctuated here and there by a yearning phrase in the violas or a more urgent one in the double basses.

In his remarks from the stage, bassist Doty said the players had watched Hitchcock’s film to prepare for the concert, and had noticed that “everyone in it is searching for love—even Norman Bates.” Even for a listener who couldn’t mentally match all the excerpts to specific scenes, Friday’s performance was eloquent testimony to the composer’s and director’s skill in creating a landscape of spiritual emptiness and longing, from which the film’s brief (but indelible) scenes of violence could suddenly spring.

Following a short break—held to five minutes or so, Doty said, so as not to interrupt the flow of the program—violinist Schoenberger announced that the concert was about to “turn the corner” into music that affirmed a sense of community, beginning with the Suite from Appalachian Spring, Aaron Copland’s music for Martha Graham’s dance of rural life.

One hopes it isn’t stereotyping the orchestra’s young players to say that they were better at projecting the animal high spirits of Copland’s score than the nostalgia of a mid-20th-century composer for a bygone America. It didn’t help that the three guest wind players were somewhat too loud in the score’s hazy opening moments.

But these are small quibbles with a performance that offered many pleasures. Although the fast dance’s constantly changing meters befuddled many a conductor back in the day, this ensemble breezed through them without any conductor at all.

The wind players—flutist Susan Palma-Nidel, clarinetist Romie de Guise-Langlois, and bassoonist Brad Balliett—found their balance soon enough, and contributed fine solos and ensemble work, especially Palma-Nidel with her full tone and expressive vibrato.

The score’s piano part, rarely prominent but always essential, was executed with vigor and a nice variety of touch by Amy Yang.

Continuing what Schoenberger called “music about the everyday things, a celebration of what’s always there,” the orchestra closed the program with music of a family fiddle band from rural Finland that calls itself JPP, short for a Finnish name meaning “Little Fiddlers of Järvelä.”

JPP’s traditional music, in Doty’s arrangement which was heard in public for the first time Friday night, is characterized by attractive melodies and dance tunes over simple walking bass lines and lots of drone notes, played either by separate instruments or by double-stopping on the same instrument.

The performance began with only cellos and basses onstage, the violas stationed at the foot of the aisles, and the violinists entering from the rear of the auditorium. The sound of eight fiddles playing a stately processional tune over the robust drone of open strings enveloped the listener.

Whether from this uncanny sensation or some other cause, a member of the audience apparently fainted, and the performance stopped while she was attended to by other patrons and eventually the Boston Fire Department. Looking shaken but otherwise all right, she was assisted out of the hall in a chair.

The incident was forgotten as the orchestra restarted the piece, walking slowly down the aisles and onto the stage as it played the movement titled “Wedding Suite.”

Then the real-life bride-and-groom-to-be took a turn on the dance floor, with violinist Schoenberger double-stopping a swirling dance and drone to Doty’s plucked-bass accompaniment. Eventually the whole ensemble joined in on “McLean’s Dream”—a not-very-Finnish-sounding title that one hopes does not refer to the nearby mental hospital.

The scherzo of this four-movement suite was titled “Speedy Slam,” which pretty much says it all. Holding his double bass, Doty barked out a fast count of four, and the ensemble sawed away furiously in multiple stops to an exhilarating finish in a little over a minute.

One wondered about the wisdom of following such hot music with a more leisurely jig, but “Hale Bopp”—presumably named for the brilliant comet that appeared in the sky during the late 1990s—proved a rich final course, building up steadily both in momentum and in layers of sound. Its melodies in long notes over a more active background recalled Herrmann’s use of the same texture–to very different emotional effect, of course.

Admirable as this finale was, the obvious way to close this gratifying concert was to encore the “Speedy Slam,” and that’s exactly what the orchestra did.

The 2014-15 season of A Far Cry begins with works of Biber, Mozart, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky at St. John’s Church, Jamaica Plain, September 6. afarcry.org; 617-553-4887.

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