Sometimes a concert program comes together easily, threaded together by a single composer, a common source of inspiration, or (God help us) a concept. Assembling the individual works is in each case straightforward, almost self-explanatory.
And then there are programs whose links are more obscure yet no less profound, and putting them together is less a matter of cutting and pasting than following one’s intuition about how a group of works might speak gratifyingly to one another.
Such a program is the one curated by Jesse Irons for A Far Cry, the conductorless chamber orchestra in which he is a violinist, for their concert Thursday at the Gardner Museum. The performance is part of the museum’s Avant Gardner series, which centers on modern music. True, three of the four pieces were written after 1975, but Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto is no one’s idea of the newest in new.
Irons, in a recent phone interview, said that in looking at the program now, it seems almost like “a Baroque program in disguise.” But he didn’t set out to line it up that way; rather, “there were certain pieces that I was fascinated by and sort of listening to next to each other, and themes started to emerge.”
One of those was Andrew Norman’s “Gran Turismo” for eight violins. Inspired by the racing video game of the same name, the 2004 piece has a kinetic, mechanical feel. “There’s a lot of energy and virtuosity, a sort of post-post-post-minimalism,” as Irons, perhaps less than helpfully, described it.
Thinking about the Norman work’s motoric character put Irons in mind of the Bach, which A Far Cry has played numerous times. “It just starts and keeps going. It actually becomes a little bit hypnotic in the same way a minimalist piece can.” And that led him to “Muse” (2007) by Christopher Theofanidis, whom Irons knew as an undergraduate at the Peabody Conservatory. “Muse” was written as a companion piece for the Brandenburg Third, one of six such works commissioned by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.
The program’s final entry is perhaps its most unusual: Symphony for Open Strings, written in 1978 by the Dutch composer Louis Andriessen. It shares characteristics with the pieces around it: there is forward momentum and repeating patterns, and its sound has a faint Baroque aura. But it stands apart by dint of the unique performative challenges it poses.
Andriessen composed the Symphony for 12 string instruments, each of which tunes its four strings differently. All the strings are to be played open – that is, without using a finger on the non-bowing hand to press down on the fingerboard. Because of the unusual tunings, four different instruments are needed to play any melody of four consecutive notes.
Embedded in these unusual demands, Irons said, is a political idea about “the individual needing to completely be at service to the larger group, subsume him or herself to the group.” But, he continued, Andriessen is able “to make melodies happen in a really beautiful way. You’ll be able to hear melodies happen and watch them happen as we sort of coordinate our timing among the musicians.”
Indeed, when played by an unconducted group like A Far Cry, the piece may pose the ultimate test of a set of musicians’ ability to incorporate their own impulses for the good of the larger whole. “It’s going to be a challenge,” said Irons, speaking before rehearsals had begun. But he was also confident that the group could meet that challenge because “in A Far Cry we’re very used to letting go of our individual egos at times. The whole group is based on the idea that different people will be leading at different moments.”
Viewed in that way, the Andriessen work almost seems like the ideal work for A Far Cry. By creating a structure in which “11 other people are going to be dependent on every note you play,” as Irons put it, the composer subtly undermines the hierarchical notion of leaders and followers in an ensemble.
Irons has an almost Zen formation of this principle. “There’s a paradox at work here: The need for everyone to be at the service of the group, and to be leading the group. The sense of being both leader and follower simultaneously – that’s one of the tensions at the heart of what we do, exploring this simultaneous role. And this piece will put that right on display for everyone to see.”