Friday night at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall, the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry did as many musicians do when introducing brand new material, and paired it with a standard. That A Far Cry now has certain pieces it can call standards at all is a milestone of maturity in itself, one that might feel a little jarring to longtime listeners — hang on, wasn’t A Far Cry that joyfully scrappy DIY orchestra of freelancers rehearsing out of a storefront in Jamaica Plain? Breaking news: You got older and so did they, a baby born when the orchestra was founded will be old enough to vote in two years, and they still rehearse in that storefront in JP.
But even though A Far Cry has decisively established itself as a mainstay of the Boston musical community, something about it feels perpetually fresh with every performance. Take the standard the orchestra chose, Ted Hearne’s “Law of Mosaics”: Not a standard by the classical canon’s definition, but a standard for A Far Cry itself. The ensemble commissioned “Law of Mosaics” from Hearne and premiered it in 2013, and it became the title piece of the critically acclaimed 2014 recording that launched A Far Cry to greater recognition outside Boston.
A few years before this piece premiered, a clip of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile” slowed down by 800 percent set the Internet abuzz and (in my opinion) helped clear a path for an explosion of musical memes. A similar irreverent but good-natured spirit seemed to rule “Law of Mosaics.” As its title suggests, the piece is made of chunks and shards of sound that are often directly sampled from other pieces. These usually, if not always, coalesced into a greater whole during Friday’s performance.
Violinist Alex Fortes, that piece’s concertmaster, led the orchestra in demonstrating a few of those samples before properly beginning the piece, which includes movements titled (for example) “Excerpts from the middle of something” and “Climactic moments from ‘Adagio for Strings’ and ‘The Four Seasons’ slowed down and layered on top of one another.” This last one featured exactly what it said on the tin while “Palindrome for Andrew Norman” seamlessly strung together samples from sources ranging from Bach to Björk and made me wish I could listen again with an annotated guide on hand. Also like many Internet memes, the piece dragged on longer than was entertaining or interesting, but not too long after that occurred to me, it was over.
The concert’s second half was dedicated to the debut performance of “The Glittering World,” which the orchestra commissioned from Navajo composer Juantio Becenti. Becenti, who was born one year after Hearne, also wove several samples into his score: Dmitri Shostakovich’s four-note musical signature here, and a song that Becenti said “every Navajo child grows up singing” there. But instead of the foundations of the piece, Becenti’s samples were more like waystations along the piece’s journey, which abstractly dramatized the Navajo creation myth.
Longtime A Far Cry violinist Miki Cloud played a crucial role as a soloist throughout the piece, but “The Glittering World” is not a traditional concerto. Cloud stood not in front of the orchestra, but embedded within it, and when the solo part diverged from the violin section, it was always in conversation with the orchestra at large. “The Glittering World” began with a busy shimmer of hope and wonder and ended in a similar place after several tension-filled detours. The first of these was led by the low strings, the next by the violins as Cloud matched and magnified long, razor-edged notes from the section players one by one.
The final turn into the sun came with the Navajo song, which the violins played with intentionally fuzzy intonation that evoked a chorus of schoolchildren. “The Glittering World” deserves the best that can be said about a new piece: It deserves repeated listening, and the repeated performances that make that listening possible.
Special kudos are due to Cloud, not only for shining in “The Glittering World” but for her leadership with the three high school students of the Project STEP Honors Quartet, which opened the concert with single movements from quartets by Haydn and Quinn Mason. With Cloud playing second violin, violinist Laura Licata, violist Alba Gilabert-Reid, and cellist Lorenzo Ye showed more comfort with ensemble playing and communication than I’ve seen from many conservatory undergraduates. It only makes sense — if they’re learning that from A Far Cry, they’re learning from the best. Now how about putting “The Glittering World” on the next CD?
A FAR CRY
At Jordan Hall. March 31. www.afarcry.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.