A Far Cry opens with a whirlwind tour of the Americas

September 27, 2015 at 10:18 pm

By David Wright

A Far Cry opened their season Saturday night in Jamaica Plain.

A Far Cry opened their season Saturday night in Jamaica Plain.

The Jamaica Plain-based chamber ensemble A Far Cry continued its country-hopping ways Saturday afternoon with a “home opener” at St. John’s Episcopal Church that featured music from all over the Western Hemisphere

In the all-strings program, titled “TransAmericana,” pieces from South America outnumbered those from El Norte three to one, but that one—Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 3—opened the program in stunning fashion.

In a town still abuzz with curiosity about the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s new music director, A Far Cry’s 18 players demonstrated again their ability to play as one with no one waving a stick over them.

Instead, their programs are “curated” by a member of the ensemble—in Saturday’s case, violinist Omar Chen Guey—and then, through rehearsal, the group collectively achieves a unanimity of purpose that would be the envy of many a string quartet. They might paraphrase the late Yogi Berra: you can hear a lot just by listening.

In this way the players on Saturday were able to sustain the latent tension of the Glass symphony’s opening bars throughout the first movement. Composed in 1995, as Glass was turning from his precedent-shattering early minimalism to a more nuanced engagement with the classics, the Symphony No. 3 followed a four-movement plan and opened, like many a symphony by Haydn or Beethoven, with slow, suspenseful music.

But unlike those composers, Glass was aiming for a peak of expression in the third movement, while building energy with a scherzo-like second. The players negotiated this movement’s welter of mixed rhythms in twos and threes with exceptional unity and verve.

It seems natural that, looking over traditional forms, the minimalist composer would have fastened on the chaconne, with its evolving variations over a constantly repeated phrase. Saturday’s mesmerizing performance of the third movement built the chaconne in distinct layers, from the cellos’ and basses’ steady theme to rocking triplets in the violas and eventually the violins floating over it all in long notes, the whole growing ever more sonorous and urgent before evaporating suddenly in a typical Glass non-ending.

Again like a Classical symphony, this work closed with a dance-like, tension-relieving finale, with the second movement’s complex rhythms sometimes regularized into a samba beat—perhaps this norteamericano’s  one bow to the South in the piece.

That region arrived full force with Gabriela Lena Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, a 2001 work for string quartet arranged by the composer for string orchestra.  Born in the U.S. to Chinese/Peruvian and Lithuanian/Jewish parents, Frank could be just about any kind of nationalist composer she wanted, but has tended to focus her work on the encounter between indigenous and European cultures in South America.

The uncanny sounds of various native flutes in the Andes—one of which can, by artful blowing, accompany itself in parallel fifths—were evoked in the first three movements of Leyendas, setting the scene for the “legendary” personages of the last three: the chasqui, tireless running messenger of the Incas; the llorona, a woman hired to cry at funerals; and the romanceros,young men who sing flirtatious songs accompanied by what the composer calls a “storm of guitars.”

Expertly seasoned with the full array of Bartókian string effects—glissando, sul ponticello, col legno, snap pizzicato, and the rest—this performance of Leyendas took listeners to distant, windswept landscapes before bringing them back to a tuneful close, the young gallants sounding a bit like Dvořák with a shot of Latin passion.

Heitor Villa-Lobos also liked to operate at cultural frontiers.  The Brazilian-born, French-trained composer’s reverence for J. S. Bach and love of his native country led to the series of pieces known as Bachianas brasileiras, supposedly “the kind of music the Leipzig master might have written had he been born a twentieth-century Brazilian composer.”

Apparently the master would have spent more time at the beach than devising intricate counterpoint, judging from Saturday’s elegant and idiomatic performance of Bachianas brasileiras No. 9. The two movements, Prelude and Fugue, were more casual and melodious than their Baroque models, the one a chant-like song rather than a digital exercise, the other a charming game of toss with a gavotte-like theme. Even this lively fugue eventually sprouted a typical Villa-Lobos yearning theme for violins.

Venezuela’s Alberto Ginastera was another composer who looked to Bartók as a model, but unlike Frank he emphasized the Hungarian’s abstract expressionistic side over the folkloric. His Concerto per Corde, Op. 33, was a 1965 adaptation of his String Quartet No. 2, composed seven years earlier.

The orchestral version opened in a novel atmosphere, as cadenza-like solos from each section were punctuated with sharp outbursts from the ensemble.  One had to set aside the collective ethos of this group for a few minutes and admire the vivid individual expression of violinists Annie Rabbat and Jae Cosmos Lee, violist Sarah Darling, cellist Loewi Lin, and bassist Erik Higgins.

The ensuing “Scherzo fantastico” was like dissonant Mendelssohn, full of sprites and spooks, mostly super-pianissimo except for moments of hair-raising sudden forte. This movement’s slower twin, marked “Adagio angoscioso” (anguished), began as a melancholy meditation but grew into nightmarish shudders and shrieks. In the adagio’s long pauses and ultrasoft entrances, the ensemble demonstrated its uncanny ability to think and breathe together without a conductor.

The magic act continued as the group leaped together into the finale’s blazingly fast tempo with no one beating time. The composer let his folksy side out just a bit as dance tunes sprang out of the furiously chugging tremolos, but the movement ended suddenly amid a crescendo of white-hot dissonance, bringing a roar of applause from the audience for their local band.

But where there’s fire there’s smoke, and having earned their dessert, listeners settled back for the encore, a swoony rendition of Jerome Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.” And that’s about as norteamericano as you can get.

The next performance of A Far Cry is “Gargantua: Musical Storytelling” with poet Robert Pinsky, featuring works by Schoenberg and Françaix, Oct. 16 at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall. afarcry.org; 617-553-4887.

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