Friday, September 13, 2013

How far can A Far Cry really go?; or, conducting Mozart by committee

The talented players of A Far Cry, with nary a conductor in sight. Photo: Yoon S. Byun

It isn't often that a music organization manages to unconsciously diagnose a deep problem in the culture.  But that's what has happened in the case of A Far Cry, the conductor-free string ensemble (above) that has recently begun branching out into the repertoire of the full orchestra. This millennial group has been growing by leaps and bounds (they just became a resident chamber music group at the Gardner, after completing a European tour), and have mostly garnered rave reviews along the way.

Let's just say, however, that I remain skeptical (as Hub Review readers know I often am of millennial "innovations").  Not skeptical - I should clarify - of the individual talents of the members of A Far Cry - far from it, in fact.  These are players of extraordinary ability; indeed, the very existence of the group indicates how much better we are at educating performers than conductors. Our music schools are simply churning out more talented musicians than there are talented conductors for them to play for.  In a way, A Far Cry was inevitable.

But am I skeptical of the group's overall project, and its commitment to remaining conductor-free?

Well - yes. In fact, so far the performances I've seen by the "Criers," as they're called, have only impressed on me (again and again) that there's only so far A Far Cry can venture into the orchestral repertoire before foundering on interpretive questions that only a true conducting talent can elucidate.

I came to this conclusion (for the third time) after their concert at Jordan Hall last weekend, which wrapped with Mozart's "Prague" symphony (No. 38, K. 504).  The Criers were generally in fine form throughout the first two pieces on their program; but the scales of these were - in a stretch - surmountable by the dynamics of, say, a quartet or quintet.  (One of the pieces even began life as a trio.)

But then, with the "Prague," the Criers hit a wall, and they basically revved their engines against it, completely out of any interpretive gear, through all three of the symphony's movements. Indeed, the performance was so odd - and so intellectually tedious - that at the finish, nobody applauded; a misprint in the program had suggested there was a fourth movement still to come, so the uninitiated were waiting for more; meanwhile those in the know had tuned out long ago.

Sigh! This collapse was all the more striking given the virtuosity of the individual players, and the cohesion of what had come earlier; for A Far Cry now boasts a rich, robustly rolling sound that most orchestras would die (or kill) for.  Indeed, the confident gleam of their playing almost overwhelmed the anxious edge of the first piece on the program, Gideon Klein's Partita for Strings (arranged by Vojtěch Saudek). This work was written (in trio form) while Klein languished in the notorious Terezin concentration camp - where the Nazis had set up a tiny mock society, with its own cultural calendar (the opera The Emperor of Atlantis, which we heard last year at BLO, likewise hails from Terezin - the place could deserve its own musical season, I believe).

Klein's trio - his last musical work - vanished for almost half a century; he gave it to his girlfriend for safekeeping just before being transported to Auschwitz, and it lay forgotten in a suitcase until 1990, when it was accidentally re-discovered and arranged by Saudek. I wouldn't argue that it's a masterpiece, but it poignantly hints at a career that might have been (Klein was only 25 at his death); the spirits of Bartók and especially Janáček move fitfully within its three movements (two nervous dances, separated by a lamenting Lento), and its final, driven theme seems to piercingly recall the dreadful motto of the work camps, Arbeit macht frei ("Work makes you free").

To their credit, the Criers played it for all it was worth - but somehow the trio's poignant vulnerability seemed to go missing in the process. This is a piece scribbled under intolerable conditions, hidden in last-minute desperation, and then lost for half a century; yet the Criers gave it an odd sheen of technical triumph, a slightly grand, "We can do this!" kind of pseudo-pathos.

They were on far firmer ground with the second piece on the program, Josef Suk's Serenade for Strings (in E-flat major, Op.6).  Suk now counts as obscure, but the glories of this serenade made me wonder how it ever could have been left on any musical shelf: it's a lush re-working of Czech folk tunes, à la Suk's own teacher (and father-in-law) Antonín Dvořák, into four movements of pure romantic rapture (I hope Dvořák's daughter was pleased!). Almost every phrase is beguiling (although the descending melody of the Adagio may be the most memorable), and Suk's arrangement of the material is unfailingly sensitive - even superb; he only stumbles in a slightly forced "laughing" motif at the finale - but honestly, this only seems less than bewitching in comparison to the voluptuous glories that have come before. The piece may only be a musical meringue, but meringues don't get any richer than this.  And with Jesse Irons on first violin, the Criers played it so seductively I was surprised nobody in the audience fainted.

The Prague theatre that premiered Don Giovanni.
Still, delightful as it is, there's something slightly deceptive about the Suk: gorgeously arranged as they are, its melodies barely develop; they are nestled within each other expertly, but rarely explored. The "Prague," however, is something of an apex of musical development - I think there are six intertwining motifs in the first movement alone. Which is one reason why you desperately need a conductor to assay this prime piece of late Mozart.

After a stately introduction (played with grandly measured pomp by the Criers) the first movement alone breaks apart into just about as complicated a symphonic conversation as you'll ever hear. Melodies return, sometimes inverted, and in counterpoint; they come back as a whisper, as a call, as a cry - and sometimes they intentionally recall (at least to a sophisticated listener) motifs from Don Giovanni (which premiered in Prague) and The Magic Flute - so the symphony is embedded in Mozart's entire late achievement, and his popularity in this Bohemian capital.  Honestly, there's just no way to build a "consensus" around the many interpretive decisions these circumstances conjure - at least in the usual rehearsal time allotted to a performance. Under those conditions, what you need to make the "Prague" work is a vision.  But what we got from A Far Cry was something like a relay race, with each soloist ratcheting the volume up higher and higher as he or she grabbed the musical baton.

Was this catastrophe due to the presence of the new players filling out the ranks of the orchestra?  Probably - at least partly.  But then those are the breaks, aren't they!  If A Far Cry is going to go where chamber music has never gone before, it's silly to imagine they can navigate this new musical space with chamber music techniques.

To be fair, the Criers seem aware of these issues. I thought at first that the ensemble's artistic achievements were rising and falling with the skills of their respective concertmasters, but I've learned since that the group has developed various techniques to bridge the interpretive gap left by the vacuum at the podium: they have various conductor factota at their rehearsals, with sobriquets like "The Spoke" and "The Spanker," (Ooo!) as well as an official Timekeeper to close down arguments.  There are rules about who can stop the playing to offer a comment - and how many comments they can make before playing must resume; it all sounds like the endless attempts at consensus I endured at Occupy Boston, frankly - and damned if this kind of group-think could ever find its way through late Mozart!

So why do it? Why go through all this trouble when you could just hire a conductor - even a visiting one - instead?  I admit I am puzzling over these questions.  (I am reminded that the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields also began its life as a conductor-less ensemble - they only elevated Neville Marriner to a leadership role when the initial arrangement became too cumbersome.) The Criers assure me that "it's all worth it" - and maybe it is, at least on their side of the equation. (Perhaps they should sell tickets to rehearsals - depending on who's "spanking"!)  But on the audience side - well, somehow I don't think so. And what exactly is the point, anyway?  This is where the attitude of A Far Cry gets interesting - because it echoes a millennial stance that's negatively impacting many of the arts.

In almost every discipline, in fact, there's a kind of new authorial reticence at work - the millennials don't want to empower strong, individual artistic voices; indeed, sometimes they don't even want to empower their own voices.  More and work in the theatre, for instance, is being "devised" collectively - and even millennial playwright Annie Baker, perhaps the best of her generation, seems almost afraid of her own voice (she has begun to fill her plays with silences).  Likewise genre has become a touchstone for this crowd in literature and the cinema because its structures have been worked out by other, earlier authors. And I've begun to feel the same winds blowing in millennial music - a recent concert of winners of the Rome Prize, for instance, revealed a group of composers who were happy to only tweak postmodern tropes inherited from their elders. 

I'm tempted to call this a crisis, but of course it's unfair to lay it at the feet of A Far Cry.  Still, at the end of the day, the "Prague" Symphony was not written by a committee. Of that much I am sure. So I can't figure out why A Far Cry feels a committee should be able to conduct it.


  1. _"In almost every discipline, in fact, there's a kind of new authorial reticence at work - the millennials don't want to empower strong, individual artistic voices; indeed, sometimes they don't even want to empower their own voices."_

    Interesting observation.

    And in using the phrase 'written by a committee', you hint at an interesting irony: Generally speaking, the people who want art to be the product of a community - as opposed elevating the ideas of an individual conductor, playwright, or whatever above her those of her colleagues - tend to think of themselves as leftists, liberals, or maybe libertarians; as people opposed to the homogenization of society by state or corporate bureaucrats. And yet what they produce is just as homogenized as anything made under the direction of censorious government functionaries or greedy businessmen.

    I was going to say that your observation seems to hold less true for the popular arts than for the high arts, but on reflection, I have to qualify that. Some of the more distinctive voices in popular culture today - the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino in film, Kanye West in music - may be enjoyed by the "millennials" (my generational cohort), but they themselves are from a previous generation, born in the 1970s or earlier. Lena Dunham, on the other hand, the millennial self proclaimed "voice of my generation - or at least a generation", is, of course, another case of an authorial voice effacing itself.

    (I know you despise Tarantino and partly agree. You've said you think he psychologically primed America for Guantanamo Bay, something for which I think the "brutish and proud of it" aesthetic of the likes of Die Hard, Independence Day, Braveheart, and Armageddon is more to blame. But his homophobia is certainly real and appalling. Anyway, he is in at least some important ways a malignant personality, but his personality is his own.)

    In trying to think of millennial popular entertainers who DO speak assertively in their own voices, or at least aspire to, I've come up with Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift. Perhaps not coincidentally, they are both working in popular MUSIC, a profession that has for a century been filled with people who never went to college, or went and dropped out, from Irving Berlin and George Gershwin through Bob Dylan and the Beatles to the present.

    This is not to imply that our colleges are squashing our geniuses in the bud. They might LIKE to, but genius isn't that easy to squash, and anyway, you need to have a genius on hand before you can squash her.

    But maybe popular music is getting such individual voices as the millennials have to offer by virtue of being the easiest business to break into (relatively speaking) for aspiring artists who don't want to bother with what passes for higher education in the arts today.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Graham. I'm not sure that Taylor Swift counts as interesting, or even an artist. Gaga is better - she is at least a real vocalist and musician - but of course her antics seem again like just an extension of Madonna's schtick. In general I feel the popular arts are in as steep a nose dive (at least) as the high arts.

    And a few more thoughts on the kind of millennial "collective" that A Far Cry may typify. I think it's worth noting that I've heard the ensemble has no contract with the local musicians' union. So they're kind of a libertarian collective - a paradoxical notion that is highly millennial. I likewise think it's worth noting how often various Criers chat up their connections with the likes of John Kerry, or how they dash back and forth to Ravinia, or even Asia - one admits she flies back and forth from Toronto for rehearsal! And without even a union wage? Hmmm. If this is a collective, you wonder if it isn't backed by several trust funds.

  3. Thanks for your reply.

    "I think it's worth noting that I've heard the ensemble has no contract with the local musicians' union."

    Oh Jesus Christ.

    I try to bear in mind that it would be simplistic to exclusively blame economic conservatives for all the questionable trends in the arts today; but it becomes difficult when the perpetrators of one keep turning out to also be perpetrators of the other. (Last week it was looking up Denis Dutton after skeptically hearing his "scientific" method of criticism recommended as an alternative to Derrida and Foucault - if the endorsement hadn't come in an attractive anti-post structuralist package, I might not have bothered at all - and discovering, of course, a global warming denier and former self identified supporter of New Zealand's Libertarian Party.)

    " admits she flies back and forth from Toronto for rehearsal! And without even a union wage? Hmmm. If this is a collective, you wonder if it isn't backed by several trust funds.
    his is a collective, you wonder if it isn't backed by several trust funds."

    I got over being surprised by people making transcontinental commutes a couple of years ago when I discovered I was taking classes with people who shuttled between San Francisco and Boston in order to attend. Still... depending on the instrument, that might be TWO airplane seats each way.

    If your guess is right, then at least it allows one to hope that maybe young musicians from less privileged backgrounds are less likely to decide they're too good for a conductor.

    On the subject of Lady Gaga, the less said about her image the better, but I do find her a somewhat sporadically interesting as a melodist. Swift I actually find very impressive, but I know you don't, and this probably isn't the place to have that discussion.