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A Far Cry Storm Back into Action at the Naumburg Bandshell

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.

A Far Cry Revel in the Rich Sonics of This Year’s Indoor Naumburg Concerts at Temple Emanu-El

After innumerable years in Central Park, the annual summer Naumburg free concert series has moved indoors to Temple Emanu-El while their namesake bandshell is finally renovated. Evertbody who plays this year’s inaugural series of indoor shows seems to agree that the space is as sonically sublime as it is architecturally celestial. That feeling was echoed, literally, by several members of string orchestra A Far Cry, who played the most recent concert there last week.

Over the years, the programming has featured a rotating cast of ensembles; this was the Boston-based group’s second appearance. They opened elegantly with Georg Muffat’s 1701 tour of baroque European dances, the Concerto Grosso No. 12; the party really started with the group’s arrangement of Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte. A clever series of variations on cell-like phrases, the orchestra parsed its tricky syncopation, playful stops-and-starts and the sudden unease of a swooping series of intertwining microtonal phrases with a lithe, graceful aplomb.

Composer Lembit Beecher introduced the Manhattan premiere of his suite Conference of the Birds as an update on an ancient Persian fable about a flock in search of a leader. It seemed to be more of a commentary on how groups all too often leave the outliers behind, than a parable on the virtues of democracy. In the high-ceilinged space, a troubled, muted mass flutter midway through the piece really packed a punch as the echoes began to pulse. Beecher’s meticulous web shifted from delicate, searching birdsong figures, to tense swells that never quite soared carefree. It brought to mind Kayhan Kalhor’s even more anthemic portrait, Ascending Bird.

Likewise, the icing on this sonic cake, Tschaikovsky’s Serenade in C had more of the precision and determined focus of a string quartet than fullscale orchestral grandeur. The group zeroed in on the inner architecture of one of the most iconic works in the High Romantic repertoire, a guided tour of how much fun the composer must have had writing it.

The Naumburg concerts continue at Temple Emanu-El – on Fifth Ave. just north of 65th Street – on July 30 at 7 PM with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s playing works by Anna Clyne, Florence Pryce, Samuel Barber and others. It’s a big space, with more seats than you typically find outside in the park, but getting there early is still a good idea.

A Far Cry Play a Demanding, Witheringly Relevant Program in Withering Heat in Central Park

It’s already an achievement when all eighteen members of a string orchestra can be on the same page and get everything right in the comfortable confines of a concert hall. It’s another thing entirely to do that in ninety-plus degree heat, facing a Manhattan sunset. Tuesday night at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, A Far Cry really worked up a sweat doing a whole lot more in a brilliantly programmed mix of mostly dark works with potent resonance for the pre-impeachment Trump era. 

The highlight could have been Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3, from 1994. Managing to negotiate the thicket of hypnotic, often ominous circular riffage that foreshadowed Glass’ Dracula soundtrack from five years later was impressive enough. Yet the group dug in for both the jokes – the trick ending at the end of the first movement and the “who, me?” exchanges of pizzicato in the final one – – along with relentless macabre understatement. From the muted, wounded whispers of the introduction, dynamics were ripe to rise with a pulse just short of bloodcurdling. Much as the second movement is on the slow side, it’s also very percussive, and the ensemble were on that as well, bassists Erik Higgins and Karl Doty exchanging fanged serpentine phrases beneath circling cloudbanks of melody.

It’s one of Glass’ most Lynchian works, and it set the stage lusciously well for an even more dynamically bristling interpretation of Bartok’s Divertimento for String Orchestra. WQXR’s Elliott Forrest, the night’s emcee, explained that the composer had written it in 1939 before escaping the encroaching fascism in his native Hungary. The ensemble kept their cards close to the vest through the straightforwardly strutting phony pageantry that opens the triptych but then got their claws out for the anguished, jaggedly slashing danse macabre afterward. Likewise, the contrast between the sense of depletion and loss in the second movement and the defiantly jaunty coda was breathtaking. As a musical hail-Mary pass (and raised middle finger at the Nazis and their enablers), it’s akin to Richard Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel cheating the hangman.  

The group closed with Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae, rising from stillness to aching, Glass-ine echo effects and then an elegaic processional, a brooding conclusion to an often haunting evening.

The warmup piece – in every sense of the word – was Mozart’s Divertimento in F, K.138, a prescient student work written when he was 15 that lacks the colorful voicings he’d develop just a few years later, but its coy hooks still pop up in movies and on NPR all the time. As one of the band members mused to the crowd, who knew that this piece would ever be played in such a major city, let alone to a full house. Mozart would no doubt be plenty proud of himself.

And a special shout-out to the pretty blonde woman in the black sundress who shared an entire bag of walnut-banana crunch  – a high-class take on Fiddle Faddle – with the hungry blog proprietor seated behind her. If you see this, be in touch – reciprocity is due. 

A Far Cry’s next performance is a program including Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition plus a Jessica Meyer world premiere and works by Bernstein and Respighi at 3 PM on September 8 at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The next concert at the Naumburg Bandshell is this coming Tuesday, July 17 at 7:30 PM with popular indie classical orchestra the Knights playing works by Anna Clyne along with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances and works by Armenian icon Komitas Vardapet. Get there early if you want a seat.