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.