Introducing the second half of A Far Cry’s concert on Sept. 26, cellist Michael Unterman compared the audacious orchestra’s programming to a sushi order: most groups’ concerts are analogous to California roll; A Far Cry’s, more like sea urchin.
The audience at St. John’s Church in Jamaica Plain — around the corner, it should be said, from the venerable JP Seafood Cafe, an excellent sushi joint — gave a knowing laugh. In addition to adventurous offerings, A Far Cry excels at setting the right vibe at its concerts, nowhere more so than at its hometown gigs, where the mix of casual and engaged is at an apex. The audience is peak JP, and the noise from both within and outside the church never encroaches on the sense of participatory listening in the pews.
The concert, kicking off the group’s ninth season, was an all-Americas affair. Beyond that general theme, there were myriad cross-references and contradistinctions. Take the first half, comprising Philip Glass’s Third Symphony and Gabriela Lena Frank’s “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout.” Frank’s piece, originally written for string quartet, sketches a Peruvian exploration so skillfully in color and texture that you can almost feel the terrain beneath your feet. The Glass, by contrast, virtually never stops: The symphony is almost all forward movement. Frank details a local journey, while Glass dissolves any meaningful difference between motion and stillness — there is neither departure nor arrival, just pure energy.
The ninth of Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras” served as a gentle prelude for Ginastera’s Concerto per Corde, an arrangement of portions of the composer’s Second String Quartet. The work’s hard angles, seething dissonances, and nightmarish intensity made it the most rewarding item on an already strong program. The finale is a particularly far-reaching bit of phantasmagoria, and the Criers’ heated performance induced wonder that the piece is such a rarity.
Five days later the group was at the Gardner Museum to open this year’s Thursday-night avant-garde series Stir — a program that rated “puffer fish” on Unterman’s sushi scale. The sprawling program, “Vs.,” ranged widely and wildly over the topic of opposition in sports, war, and politics, with the musical selections spanning centuries. It was just the kind of imaginative artistic agenda that more groups should be prodded to try, even when it wasn’t uniformly successful.
Each of the three sections began with an arrangement based on recorded sound, from the slightly cringe-inducing (Queen’s “We Will Rock You”) to the unusual (the World War II-era radio show “Eyes Aloft”) to the heartbreaking (Pablo Casals’s “Song of the Birds”). The winner (so to speak) in the sports segment was John Zorn’s “Hockey,” which ingeniously yoked together three players creating a collage of found sounds — duck call, pencil sharpener, whistle — the rest of the ensemble playing recognizable arena songs, and audio of famous game calls. Its re-creation of the atmosphere of a hockey game is both loopy and brilliant. If that seems unlikely, well, do you believe in miracles?
The war section gave the opportunity for greatest contrast, the nimble rhythms of a Battaglia by Samuel
Scheidt squaring off against the brutalism of the third movement of Shostakovich’s Third String Quartet, itself amplified by the augmented scoring. Throwing them both into stark relief was Takemitsu’s Requiem, all the more effective for its melancholy restraint, and superbly played by the Criers.
The politics section contained Vivaldi’s Four-Violin Concerto in B Minor for reasons that escape me, and there were moments of less than polished execution. The closer, though, was a stunner: Frederic Rzewski’s “Coming Together,” based on a text from a letter by Sam Melville, a leader of the 1971 Attica Prison riots. The piece is driven by a literally incessant electric bass line — executed with amazing consistency by Karl Doty — which the rest of the ensemble joins at first hesitantly but with growing confidence and unity.
Over this, the narrator intones Melville’s text in fragmented repetitions. Bradford Gleim’s brilliant delivery was part ritual incantation, part controlled fury, and the conclusion, where everyone at last comes together, was shocking in its force, not least for being heard in the shadow of the Black Lives Matter movement. A performance that dealt at its essence with opposition ended with the power of unanimity.
A Far Cry
At: St. John’s Episcopal Church, Jamaica Plain, Sept. 26; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Thursday