We think of improvisation as the art of making things up on the spot. But as A Far Cry violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud pointed out from the Jordan Hall stage on Friday, the word has a contradictory etymology, carrying the senses of both sudden invention and of careful preparation. Both senses, spontaneity and groundedness, emerged at the group’s ingeniously crafted program, though often in odd ways.
Take “Throw the Book” by the Russian-born composer Ljova, which had its world premiere. Eschewing notated pitches, the piece consists of a series of text-based instructions of varying levels of specificity. One might wonder how, without notes, he achieves the rhythmic unity of the opening, which sounds straight out of minimalism. Or the rapt, blossoming chords that follow minutes later.
But stranger, Cagean things were afoot. Soon Ljova himself and violinist Megumi Stohs Lewis were playing behind scarves held by other musicians. The audience began clapping, led by the composer. Dancing broke out; so did sit-ups. Eventually a book — “The All Music Guide to Rock,” specifically — was dropped onstage, and the piece ended. Perhaps its greatest achievement is effectively blurring the line between what happens by chance and what by design.
A similar line is walked in Frederic Rzewski’s “Les Moutons de Panurge,” where the point is to wander away from the composer’s hyper-intricate melody. About a half dozen Criers played percussion; some audience members got to blow noisemakers. At some point people in the balcony began whooping. Why not? Do what you feel! And yet the whole thing unfolded against the backdrop of the almost steady, chugging patterns with which the piece begins.
The subtlest moments came in Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 449, played by Robert Levin, one of the world’s great classical improvisers. In addition to melody ornamentation and cadenzas, he played during orchestra passages, almost in the style of a Baroque concerto grosso. For all that, the sound was surprisingly weighty. For an encore, Levin picked three Crier-composed melodies out of a bowl and created, on the spot, an eight-minute improvised fantasy in matchlessly perfect Classical style. It was both erudite and entertaining, just as Mozart did it back in the day.
The concert opened with an unexciting concerto by Geminiani and closed with “Turceasca,” a traditional Turkish song by the Romanian band Taraf de Haidouks in a flashy arrangement by Ljova and Osvaldo Golijov. A Far Cry added, as a final encore, their version of the Dropkick Murphys’ “I’m Shipping Up to Boston,” the orchestra’s calling card during tours. It didn’t have much to do with improvisation, but it sure was fun.
David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@ gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.