Jordan Hall was nearly empty on Friday evening when string orchestra A Far Cry took the stage, which was hardly a surprise. No one could be faulted for opting to stay warm and dry at home instead of trudging through the newly fallen foot of snow. What’s more, staying in wouldn’t have meant missing out — via email, the orchestra reminded its patrons that virtual tickets were available to Friday night’s program, and anyone who wanted to exchange an in-person seat for a livestream link could do so. But for the few who braved the weather, warmth was abundant in “Firefly,” a wishlist of pieces that cellist Rafael Popper-Keizer devised last winter while dreaming of the day the orchestra could gather again.
Because A Far Cry thrives on gathering, and togetherness. Mutual support is ingrained in the way the musicians run the ensemble and the way they conduct themselves onstage — in both senses of the word. A Far Cry has no one waving a baton to lead the players, and no artistic director steering the ship season to season. The musicians (“Criers”) decide what they’ll play collectively, rotate section leaders, and overall function more like a pop or folk band than a conventional string orchestra. It’s just as much fun to watch the Criers mind-meld onstage as it is to hear them play, least of all because those in-the-moment interactions have yet to be replicated on Zoom.
Fireflies emerge at twilight, and “Firefly” offered comforting, complex night music, perfect for the darkest days of the year. Speaking from the stage, executive director Grace Kennerly described the program as “the big sonic hug we all needed,” which at once perfectly captured and oversimplified the music’s effects. The pieces by Kenji Bunch, Frank Bridge, Ulvi Cemal Erkin, and Guillaume Lekeu offered not an escape from the darkness, but reflection on it. There was plentiful consolation and sweetness, but also tension and yearning: the acute awareness of impermanence that the Japanese language describes as “mono no aware.”
Bunch’s “Nocturne” thrummed with a restless spirit, reaching toward resolution in meandering airs and a sardonically romantic waltz. Bridge’s Suite for String Orchestra was plainspoken and pastoral, without any of the mince-pie stodginess that can drag down Edwardian English music. In light of the trajectory into thorny cynicism his music took after World War I, the suite seemed a bittersweet song of innocence in retrospect, its own Nocturne movement glimmering with inquisitive melodies from Popper-Keizer’s cello.
This program was my first introduction to the music of Ulvi Cemal Erkin, and I imagine that was the case for several listeners; it seems the 20th-century Turkish composer’s work is seldom heard in North America, and with his “Sinfonietta,” A Far Cry made a convincing case for a rediscovery. The slow, buzzing crescendo of the slow second movement exploded into the bouncing zigzag rhythms of the finale, with the whole band playing backup to violist Sarah Darling; as it happens, the viola can turn out a surprisingly convincing impression of the Turkish reed flute called the ney. Finally, Guillaume Lekeu’s sentimental “Adagio pour quatuor d’orchestre” took the orchestra through a garden of forking paths until all 18 musicians onstage were playing independent parts.
The one thing A Far Cry could improve on is its projected concert runtimes: this event and December’s “Flames to Ashes” both ran approximately 30 minutes longer than advertised. At that point, one starts to feel the lack of intermission.
A FAR CRY
Jan. 7. Jordan Hall. www.afarcry.org