In Sonoma, A Far Cry Finds Symmetries Over Centuries

19/02/2019

J.S. Bach, Glass, Bartók, Golijov: A Far Cry (conductor-less string orchestra), Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California. 16.2.2019 (HS)

J.S. Bach — Brandenburg Concerto No.3 in G Major
Glass — Symphony No.3
Bartók — Divertimento for String Orchestra
Golijov Tenebrae

Musical connections within a specific program serve a welcome purpose when works that have elements in common are heard side by side. Who knew, for example, that preceding Philip Glass’ Third Symphony with J.S. Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto could find more depth in both works? Or that Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae could resonate so much more powerfully with the echoes of Béla Bartók’s Divertimento for String Orchestra already ringing in one’s ears?

On Saturday evening, the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry won over an attentive audience with that arresting program at Sonoma State University’s Weill Hall. They started off with a neatly trimmed, subtly shaped reading of the Bach, which he scored for three violins, three violas, three cellos, and a bass — ingeniously separating one violin, one viola and one cello as the ‘ripieno’ solo group in a compactly constructed Baroque concerto grosso form. A quick pace kept the rhythmic drive forging ahead.

The Glass symphony, commissioned for the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and premiered in 1995, goes Bach one better in one way. It is scored for 19 individual parts, and each musician gets a solo role before the four movements are over. In the third movement chaconne, the cumulative effect of each player taking the lead builds up a formidable climax.

Glass’s minimalist language, with its repetitive motifs, achieves a complexity similar to Bach’s counterpoint by using the same power of rhythmic persistence. With the purr of Bach’s motoric rhythms churning fresh in mind, Glass’s shifting meters in the dazzling second movement brought late twentieth-century freshness to the cantering rhythms (even if a five- or seven-legged horse might be needed to achieve them in real life). The ensemble made easy work of Glass’s offbeat time signatures and layering of melodic riffs, and brilliantly captured the kaleidoscopic effect with precise and fluent playing.

The majestic chaconne that followed grew slowly and patiently into a pulsing, sinewy animal, ending abruptly just when you thought it wouldn’t stop. The finale was a classic Glass mélange of jagged runs that overlapped and kept building until they spread out into a broad closing theme.

Bartók fashioned his Divertimento with the same concerto grosso format as these works, pitting small groups of soloists against the ensemble. Of course, unlike Glass, Bartók’s language spices up Hungarian folk music with mid-twentieth-century dissonance. Under the fingers of these musicians, the melodic lines wove in and out with meticulous balance and emerged with pepperiness intact.

Osvaldo Golijov’s Tenebrae (2002) — originally for soprano, clarinet and string quartet  —was later revised for Kronos Quartet. Golijov’s signature Middle Eastern flavor underlines its contrasts: an image of the blue marble of Earth floating through space is juxtaposed with feelings produced by violence the composer witnessed in 2000, in Palestinian uprisings in Israel.

Expanding the score for a full string orchestra, A Far Cry’s version adds depth and, if anything, more emotion. The surface effect is one of ethereal beauty. Lushly voiced chords create a cloud of serenity. A bass line sinks slowly against fluttering strings. A sustained note curlicues into melismas reminiscent of Couperin and Islamic prayers. Rumblings of unexpected darkness (‘tenebrae’ are Catholic observances in the days before Easter) nudge themselves into the fabric, woven with Arabic-influenced phrasings.

As the opening theme returned, it coalesced into a sort of hymn. Spreading a balm over the proceedings may have surprised many after the exuberance of the first half, but that’s where it ended, and magnificently.

Harvey Steiman

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