It wasn’t obvious why the intrepid string orchestra A Far Cry called its Friday Jordan Hall concert “Long Gaze.” The phrase connotes something steady and unflinching, and most of the music on the program was too mercurial for that. Only the high caliber of musicianship was so constant, and that is something listeners have grown accustomed to at this ensemble’s performances.
A better title might have been “Things Aren’t Always What They Seem.” Take the concert’s opener: the world premiere of Boston-based composer John McDonald’s “Gentle But Uneasy Dance Music,” commissioned for A Far Cry by Ruth Gessner Shocken, an early and vigorous supporter of the group who passed away last year. It’s a skillful and involving piece, permeated by languid melodies and unsettled harmonies, but there’s almost nothing in it that you’d think of dancing to (uneasily or not). Its emotional center is in its third movement, a poignant nocturne written in Shocken’s memory. Indeed, the piece as a whole has an introspective feel that’s about as far removed from a social gathering like a dance as imaginable.
Or take Britten’s song cycle “Les Illuminations,” settings of Rimbaud poems. I’ve always thought that Britten’s music was too strait-laced to capture the wildness of Rimbaud’s language. Listening to A Far Cry’s incisive performance, it became clear how subtly radical the music really is. While on the surface all seems neat and methodical, phrases and harmonies don’t follow the paths you anticipate. Unexpected sounds emerge from this orderly context, to arresting effect. Perhaps Britten’s masterstroke was to take the most fragmented poem, “Départ,” and set it as an ardent, Romantic aria.
Unusually, the vocal duties were shared by soprano Kristen Watson and tenor Zachary Wilder. Both were terrific, especially Watson, whose lithe, silvery voice was an ideal match for the music.
Webern’s String Quartet, from 1905, is usually grouped with the “tonal” works of the Second Viennese School, a group that includes Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht,” which Webern’s piece resembles. In fact, though, it looks ahead even more keenly than do any of those works: Its language verges on atonality, and the big tonal moments seem almost incongruous. Here A Far Cry offered the finest performance of the evening, playing with astonishing precision and unity.
Capping off the concert were five songs by Kurt Weill, ingeniously arranged by jazz composer Nicholas Urie. Even here there were surprises — the opening of “Lonely House” could almost have been part of the Webern. For the most part, though, the songs adroitly walked the delicate line between art and entertainment. So did the performances by Wilder, Watson, and the Criers, all of whom wore their skills with a kind of casual virtuosity.