Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Far Cry goes further

The talented musicians of "A Far Cry."
I'm catching up late with A Far Cry, the "self-conducted" string orchestra of young virtuosi that has taken the local press by storm.  And I confess I was a little skeptical of them - their ethos seemed to me like a possible mis-application of that totally-awesome DIY millennial attitude that often leaves me shaking my head.

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!
At the same time, though, it was hard to tell from the blippity-beeps of Xenakis whether the "criers" of A Far Cry were actually any good; the real test was the next piece on the program, Mozart's "Serenata Notturna, " (K. 239), a spirited and lovely, but relatively little-heard, piece of "night music" by the young composer (he was only 20 when he penned it). And I'm happy to say that soon after the performance began, my skepticism regarding A Far Cry had pretty much melted away; the group cohered in a way not many young ensembles do, and gave the music a hearty, forward pulse, propelled by the first and second violins, Jennifer Curtis and Miki-Sophia Cloud, who were exceptional (Curtis is practically already a star). As I listened, though, I realized that A Far Cry wasn't so much "self-conducted" as "first-chair-conducted;" this wasn't orchestral music done in a new way so much as an old way. And when you've got someone like Curtis in the first chair, that way is just fine; indeed, the high point of the serenade came in the cadenza at the very end of the rondo, when Curtis let rip with a witty bit of gypsy harmony that pulled us back to the folk origins of the form.

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.


  1. I'm a huge fan of A Far Cry. They are my hometown (Jamaica Plain) orchestra and I take lessons from one of the violinists. A Far Cry has gotten me interested in orchestral music, and that's saying a lot.

  2. Well, count me as a fan, too - even if they're not my home team. Still, I'm curious as to what their project IS, exactly. Is it a political project - in other words, are they interested in proving that a group of strong talents can produce solid versions of the classical repertoire without a conductor? If so, then they're a success - "Yes, they can!" you might say. Likewise, if their aim is educational - which seems to be the point of your post - then they're probably a success, too; they're young, talented, and work very hard, and the fact that they're classical musicians but share the attitudes of many millennials probably helps classical music look "cool." And actually, that's more than enough to justify the founding of an ensemble. But those political and educational points do lead to the musical point - and, as I've written, that point is a little less clear.