A Far Cry plays it cool with serenades on a hot afternoon

September 7, 2014 at 10:02 am

By David Wright

A Far Cry performed Saturday afternoon in Jamaica Plain. Photo: Yoon S. Byun

The classical serenade evolved as an entertainment for a cool evening, not for the hottest day of a late-blooming Boston summer, but that didn’t matter to the conductorless string orchestra A Far Cry on Saturday afternoon, as it brought serenades from four centuries excitingly to life at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain.

Program books doubled as fans in the un-air-conditioned sanctuary as the ensemble evoked the night sounds of seventeenth-century Salzburg with Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Serenada a 5 “mit dem Nachtwächterlied” (with the Night Watchman’s Song).

Double bassist Karl Doty did a double of his own in the serenade’s Ciacona (chaconne) movement, setting down his instrument and making a leisurely circuit of the nave, singing the traditional watchman’s song in a pleasing baritone while his colleagues at the front accompanied him in mandolin-like pizzicato. Doty was back at his post in time for one last statement of the chaconne’s repeating bass line.

Besides the chaconne, three other dance movements were framed, as is traditional for this street-music genre, by music to enter and exit by. After a few attention-getting chords, the opening Serenada swung gently onto the scene. The intricacies of the ensuing fast dances, Allemanda and Aria, sounded a bit blurry, possibly because of the nave’s acoustics, but more likely because the no-conductor group wasn’t quite tuned in to itself yet.

Following the Ciacona, the lively Gavotte again showed off the ensemble’s expressive phrasing in pizzicato. The Ritirata (Retreat) started bombastic, with big bow strokes, but ended amusingly with a sudden diminuendo, as if the band had turned a corner and vanished.

Mozart’s clear Classical lines posed no problems of ensemble or acoustics in the group’s sonically and emotionally rich performance of his Divertimento in F major, K. 138. A prodigy not just of musical skill but of emotional insight, the 16-year-old composer painted this “entertainment” in subtle tones of light and shadow, to which the players gave full expression on Saturday.

A more reflective Allegro tempo might have let the first movement breathe a little more, but one wouldn’t want to lose the lift the group gave its full-bodied sound. A wide range of string colors, from brilliant to soft and dark, evoked the composer’s volatile shifts of mood.

The second movement, ostensibly a steady, shapely Andante, turned in this ensemble’s hands into a searching portrait of the composer as a young man, painfully tender in the hushed dialogue between higher and lower strings, suddenly passionate in the brief development section.

In the Presto finale, this group that likes to play fast backed off on the tempo just enough to give the energetic main theme its full weight, and to allow the listener to savor the light, witty interludes.

Two more works completed the program, the latter of which was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade, Op. 48. And what composer served as the bridge between Mozart and Tchaikovsky? Putting a kink in the music-history textbook, the ensemble selected Igor Stravinsky.

This bit of chronological legerdemain proved quite convincing in performance, as Stravinsky’s Concerto in D combined neoclassical fastidiousness with a robust, recognizably Russian string sound. The end result, however, was echt Stravinsky, stuttering, driving, disintegrating and coming back together in his utterly characteristic way.

He also constantly varied the sound texture. Individual players were called out from time to time, in the manner of the Baroque concerto grosso. By contrast, some of the tutti attacks in the opening Vivace were so fierce and coordinated that one could have sworn this ensemble had a percussion section.

The central Arioso was graceful and song-like over the lilt of Doty’s pizzicato bass, very romantic with a small r. In contrast, the eventful closing Rondo was driven by persistent high tremolos on a vibrantly dissonant minor second; past blurriness was forgotten in the precision and the laser-like glare of this performance.

The intermission preceding the Tchaikovsky was too long to suit this listener, but hardly long enough for the devotees of this neighborhood concert series, who one sensed could have greeted each other and played how-was-your-summer until well into the night.

After so much leisurely conviviality, the ensemble’s urgent rendition of Tchaikovsky’s opening Andante non troppo made one wonder what was the hurry. (The tempo marking is admittedly ambiguous—“not too” what? Fast or slow?) The ensuing Allegro moderato also sounded rather driven, with a tendency to rush through the rests, but the gentle second theme was wonderfully light and precise, and the group’s tonal richness, balance, and coordination were outstanding.

One has heard waltzes that flowed and danced more than Saturday’s rendition of the Serenade’s second movement, but the players’ enthusiasm and attention to detail projected clearly through the large space. The movement’s coy pauses and ritards were deftly done, but sounded a little isolated without a more graceful context to grow out of.

The great Élégie at the heart of this work so moved the choreographer George Balanchine that he broke his own rule of not re-arranging movements of a piece so that his ballet Serenade would end with this music. A Far Cry’s performance of it was superb in many ways—rich tone, intensity, drive, a beautifully voiced pianissimo return of the theme here, a viola theme to die for there—and yet sounded, overall, rather objective. It made one think, maybe conductors aren’t so dispensable after all.

Noting the composer’s very sensitive linkage of this magical music to the fast finale, the players barely lifted their bows between movements, letting one pianissimo flow into the other. Once the Allegro con spirito got going, however, Tchaikovsky’s frenetic, whirling “Russian theme” drove all before it. The players outdid themselves for energy and dash without sacrificing precision and the telling detail.

After Tchaikovsky, the master dramatist, had briefly interrupted the merriment with an impassioned recollection of the work’s opening bars, the players cranked up the accelerando in a thrilling coda, putting an exclamation point on an uncommonly well-designed and well-executed afternoon of music.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Sunday at the Gardner Museum. A Far Cry’s next program is “Return to the Idyll,” with works by Adès, Shostakovich and Janáček, at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, 8 pm Friday. afarcry.org

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