Every so often, a professional classical musician will have to practice, perfect, and perform repertoire that they don’t care for at best, or deeply dislike at worst. After all, the bills have to get paid somehow, and in most of the orchestral sphere, the music director’s word is law. But Jamaica Plain-based string orchestra A Far Cry doesn’t have a music director or conductor, and when it performs, odds are that the musicians don’t only care about the repertoire, they voted to play it. This, I think, is the main reason that the democratically run ensemble turns out such compelling performances. Friday evening’s program “Virtue and Virtuosity” at Jordan Hall began the ensemble’s season with an eclectic selection of music old and new, finishing with the largest-scale piece the ensemble has done: Beethoven’s well-traveled Violin Concerto in D, with New England Conservatory’s Soovin Kim.
Even through many seasons and multiple Grammy nominations, A Far Cry has never entirely outgrown the image of the young, scrappy, hungry ensemble that built itself from the ground up — and it still is, to a degree. But it’s reaching outward and upward. With this concert, A Far Cry is entering its 13th season. Thanks to a successful fundraising campaign, the program book explained, it’s been able to hire staff to relieve the musicians of the grunt work of running the ensemble.
A higher budget also allows the Criers to pull in additional musicians to fill out the ranks when necessary, and get more ambitious with repertoire. For the Beethoven concerto, which calls for a full woodwind section, trumpets, and timpani, “guest Criers” drastically outnumbered regular members.
But on Friday, the fact that more people were on stage didn’t dilute the sense of closeness and personality that is A Far Cry’s guiding star. When I’ve heard A Far Cry stumble, it’s usually been thanks to an out-of-left-field idea that worked better on paper than in practice; oddly enough, the Beethoven concerto might have been the most daring piece on the program given the circumstances.
Violinist Robyn Bollinger designed the program with the intent of spotlighting Kim, her longtime violin teacher. The Criers divvy up section leadership duties across different pieces; Bollinger was concertmaster for the Beethoven, and she was glowing behind her stand while Kim and the Criers gave the classic concerto a fresh coat of paint. As a performer, Kim was assertive and gracious, drawing out a warm, welcoming sound from his violin; combined with the friendly atmosphere of the stage, the concerto felt like a family reunion. Kim’s first movement cadenza was rock solid, and the sparky sizzle he polished it off with was almost a surprise after his grounded approach to the lead-up.
A few more sparsely orchestrated sections of the music could have used a little more finessing, but all shakes were quickly righted — with no conductor and a stage full of guest players, that was a feat.
Anchoring Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, violists Jason Fisher and Sarah Darling showed off their Baroque bona fides on modern instruments and bows; their full, radiant sound and zippy phrases made the case that the instrument one plays for Bach matters less than how it’s played. A battalion of violinists lined up two by two for a handful of duets by Berio, short pieces replete with pungent dissonances. The final and longest selection brought all the violinists together, making a powerful wall of unified sound. Then, there was Reiko Yamada’s “New Shadows in the Raw Light of Darkness,” originally commissioned and premiered in the ensemble’s infancy. In the composer’s program note for the dreamlike piece, which she revised for this performance, she explained how her younger self “[proclaimed] her love and admiration for AFC in each section” in writing it, trying to show off the skills of each musician by tossing a variety of references and styles into the score. The revision performed at Jordan Friday still conveyed affection and excitement, but informed by experience. One could say the same about this orchestra.
A FAR CRY
At Jordan Hall, Friday
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.