From 1905 through 2019, the Naumburg concerts in Central Park became one of the longest-running annual series in the history of music. It has been as much of a godsend to witness the return of these performances this year as it was tragic to lose them in 2020. Last night at the Naumburg Bandshell, huddled under their umbrellas in relentless rain that finally grew to monsoon proportions, a crowd of about a hundred undeterred concertgoers thunderously welcomed back a familiar presence on the stage here, seventeen-piece string ensemble A Far Cry.
They were just as happy to see the audience. This was the group’s first concert since February of last year. Violinist Jae Cosmos Lee mentioned that they’d played their share of webcasts and broadcasts, as just about every other ensemble that managed to stay together during the sixteen-month lockdown here in the northeast ended up doing. Still, he confided that his most sobering realization during that time was how crucial the relationship between performers and audience is. “Without you, all this would be…” he searched for a word, “Nothing!” This wasn’t just Sergeant Pepper trying to take all the girls home. This was sincere.
That energy was more electric than the sky overhead: Lee enthused that this was the group’s most exciting moment onstage, at least since a show in Slidell, Louisiana where it was “raining sideways” and one of the violinists burst into a solo version of Orange Blossom Special while her bandmates waited for the sky to clear.
Throughout this particular downpour, the music was transcendent in the purest sense of the word. They opened with Grieg’s Holberg Suite, bristling with dynamics, from the stiletto staccato of the first movement, black velvet resonance from bass and cellos in the anxious second part, and a lithe pulse throughout the baroque-tinged dances they wound it up with.
Joseph Bologne, a.k.a. Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a slightly older and very colorful contemporary of Mozart, is all the rage now, represented on this bill by a kinetically stately take of his 1778 Sinfonia Concertante Op. 13, No. 1, which has actually never been recorded. Maybe A Far Cry can jump on that bandwagon too.
The two pieces de resistance among many were a couple of Jessie Montgomery works. She’s one of us, Lower East Side born and bred, and the group did her justice with a plucky, emphatically circling, meticulously playful take of her 2012 work Strum for String Orchestra. And they luxuriated in the wealth of subtly cached microtones and slowly glissandoing swells in Source Code for String Orchestra, from a year later.
Silouan’s Song, a 1991 Arvo Part composition, made an apt segue with its somber, spaciously paced minimalism. The group closed with the High Romantic joy and angst and ultimate triumph of Teresa Carreno’s 1895 Serenade for Strings: a love song, a passionately wary waltz that offered a fond nod to Chopin, moments of pensive calm ceding to a heroic coda that simply would not be denied. Meanwhile, the cadences of the storm overhead seemed to be keeping pace with the music to the extent that the crowd started laughing whenever there would be a pause, or a crescendo capped off with a thunderclap or an explosion of rain.
This year’s Naumburg Bandshell concerts continue on July 20 at 7:30 PM with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra playing works by Purcell, John Blow and others. The recently renovated bandshell is a little closer to the west side; take the 72nd St. entrance and get there early – an hour and a half early isn’t too early – if you want a seat.