From the austere supplications of a 12th-century Christian mystic, to the premiere of a brand new work inspired by Turkish Sufi ceremonies, A Far Cry’s season-opening program at the Gardner Museum on Sunday afternoon covered a lot of ground. And that was just the first half. After that came the keening ecstasies of a klezmer-style romp for chamber orchestra and solo clarinet, and the lofty pieties of the “Heiliger Dankgesang,” the song of thanksgiving from Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 132.
Musical mysticism was the afternoon’s theme, and Beethoven was in fact the only composer on the program whose name Gardner music director Scott Nickrenz knew how to pronounce, he told the capacity crowd in Calderwood Hall. (I don’t believe him, but he was making a point.) And more credit to A Far Cry for it. The city’s exuberant self-directed chamber orchestra has always clearly had a lot of fun performing its programs. This season, its sixth, the group appears to be having more fun in putting them together, too.
Sunday’s concert was curated by A Far Cry member Miki Cloud, who wrote that her chosen works were designed to frame a “passage between faith and music” in which the audience was invited to linger. The afternoon began with theatrical flair, as eight violinists encircled a pool of light on the floor of the darkened Calderwood Hall. A quiet drone drifted downward, presumably from somewhere in the balconies, while the musicians decanted the sublimely spare lines of “O ignis spiritus paracliti” (”The Origin of Fire”) by the remarkable Benedictine abbess and mystic Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Playing mostly without vibrato, the violinists brought out the purity and stillness, the coolly hypnotic beauty of this music.
From there, the program leapt ahead some 900 years to the premiere of “Vecd” by Mehmet Ali Sanlikol. Its title, the composer wrote, describes the state of mystical ecstasy aspired to by Sufi dervishes in their ceremonies. It’s a brief and instantly appealing work, earthy and kinetic, in which muscular writing for upper strings builds steadily above repeating rhythmic cycles, the whole ensemble essentially whipping itself up to a heated climax after which the music artfully dissolves into thin air. A Far Cry gave it a riveting first performance.
Osvaldo Golijov’s “The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind,” is heard most often in its version for string quartet and solo clarinet, but the heft and forcefulness of the chamber orchestra arrangement performed here seems even better suited to the music’s outsize expressive ends. The piece turns the full ensemble into a kind of congregation, wailing in fervent prayer or dancing in whirling celebration. David Krakauer, the afternoon’s guest clarinet soloist, has recorded the piece with the Kronos Quartet, and played its solo line on Sunday with masterful technique, a deep grounding in klezmer style, and boatloads of pure adrenaline. A Far Cry matched him at every turn.
On Sunday Krakauer and the group also uncorked a celebratory encore — a klezmer standard, “Der Heyser Bulgar” — prefaced by a doina, a traditional introductory form that often takes on a slow or meditative quality. Krakauer’s doina by contrast was like a roaring free jazz solo, laced with virtuosic multiphonics and capped by a piercing high note held for a small eternity.
After the extroverted energy of the Golijov, it was a nice idea to conclude with Beethoven’s inward-drawing “Heiliger Dankgesang,” even if the deeply personal confessions of this sublime music lose not a little impact when taken up by massed strings. Still, the playing was sensitive and committed. Let’s hope, more broadly, that the creativity on view in A Far Cry’s slate of concerts this year becomes the new programming baseline for this increasingly essential ensemble.