|The talented musicians of "A Far Cry."|
It's important to keep an open mind, though, right? Right! But as I settled into my seat and began to peruse the program for their "Primordial Darkness" concert last week, my heart sank. "This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in," were the opening lines - which maybe would have sounded better as a tweet; but the notes' author, Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot, kept digging from there. We learned much post-collegiate wisdom from her, including that composer Iannis Zenakis "built metaphysical alternate universes" and that playwright William Congreve was "a flash in the pan" - because, as she mused sagely, "the entertainment business has always been fickle." Uh-huh. I closed the program trying not to dislike these kids before they'd even hit the stage.
And to be honest, there was plenty to dislike about the first piece on the program, Xenakis's "Analogique A et B," for tape and live orchestra. The composer worked as an engineer with Le Corbusier before launching his musical career, and his output, like that unfortunately influential architect's, is mostly a kind of high-minded blight. Xenakis was always claiming to have derived this or that piece from "Einstein's conception of time" or from game or set theory, or even from "architectural concepts" (like "window" and "door," I suppose). But I'm afraid his compositions often end up sounding like out-takes from Forbidden Planet - not so much primordial dark as primordial bull - and that's what "Analogique A et B" sounded like, too (below, Robbie the Robot before the priory of Sainte Marie de La Tourette, on which Xenakis worked with Le Corbusier).
|And for my next piece - Villa Savoye!|
Nothing else in the program reached quite that high a pitch of invention - but the evening's premiere, Richard Cornell's "New Fantasies," boasted both a mysterious luster and an eerie atmosphere, which the criers did full justice. Unfortunately Cornell seemed to retreat into technical tinkering in the later movements of the piece, just when we felt he should be breaking through to a larger statement. Still, "New Fantasies" was a good deal better than most local academic music.
But alas, things went a little awry again in Purcell's rarely-heard music for The Old Bachelor (by that flash-in-the-pan, Bill Congreve). The criers played these dances with vigor, but they were using modern instruments, which sound too blurry and grand for Purcell's jigs and hornpipes, and his slightly-dissonant suspensions, that can have a lean, sweet edge on period strings, here were just muddily out of tune.
Things improved enormously, however, with Bartók's familiar "Divertimento for String Orchestra," a piece that again was clearly in the criers' comfort zone. First violinist Jesse Irons led the group in a powerful, if somewhat predictable, reading - but the playing only really caught fire in the cold, slowly overpowering second movement. Elsewhere in the piece, I'm afraid A Far Cry sounded a bit like a standard-issue collective, with an interpretive profile that can easily creep toward the mean. Yes, it's wonderful that the criers can play so coherently without a conductor - but what's the point of that, if the end results aren't striking individual interpretations? I don't mean to question their achievement, which is a considerable one - and I'd happily hear them again (although I might skip the program notes). And I welcome their programming of obscurities, from the sublime (Purcell) to the ridiculous (Xenakis). But the question of what they're trying to achieve in musical terms, I think, has yet to be answered.