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A Far Cry

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A Far Cry: Debut (music by Golijov, Handel, Tchaikovsky)
We missed hearing the young chamber orchestra from Boston that calls itself A Far Cry last season at Dumbarton Oaks. They came back this weekend to end that venue's season, where we heard them on Monday night. It is easy to see why audiences and concert presenters would be fired up about the group, which is young, dynamic, and visibly passionate about what they do. It is not so easy to hear. These musicians have spirit, but musical details like intonation and ensemble cohesion were left wanting at times. Another danger of direction by committee -- the group has no conductor and often rotates the leadership position in each section with each piece -- is that some programming choices were laudable, in a concert that was a "greatest hits" from the past four years' worth of performances, and others were not.

The two pieces that had the most success were series of short movements that seemed to engage the imagination the most. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber's Battalia à 10 (D major, C. 61), which opened the concert, was rollicking good fun, a programmatic work that described a battle (with stamps of the feet), the rattle of the drum (with paper covering double-bass fingerboard), a drunken party (with a cacophony of parts in different keys and time signatures all at once, preceded by a couple boozy burps -- not indicated in the score), and the crack of the cannon (percussive pizzicati). It was paired with an "arrangement" of Beethoven's "Serioso" quartet (F minor, op. 95) that really added nothing to, and may have detracted from, the original quartet version, since it just expanded the number of players on each part, aside from sometimes adding double-bass to the cello line and sometimes not. The greater numbers made the forceful unisons of the first movement stronger, but rushing in the third movement was a little out of control, diminishing the effect of the generally brash sound.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, A Far Cry at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown (Washington Post, April 24)
A half-baked piece by Osvaldo Golijov, Tenebrae, was another mistake. The work is a static set of progressions cribbed from Couperin's Troisième Leçon de Ténèbres ("lifted" is the word Golijov used in his program note), with little added to it but some moody oscillations that pulsate in ostinato figures and dynamic markings, a meditative mush that could be the soundtrack of a Hallmark commercial. Its pairing with Benjamin Britten's Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, op. 10, was damning. From the same palette of instruments, Britten drew forth a much broader range of colors and effects, in a score burgeoning with ideas arranged in ten short movements, each an ingenious and virtuosic work of mimicry. The models are all easy to distinguish -- a sardonic Shostakovich march, a melodic tribute to Verdi, Prokofiev-like neoclassicism, a Dvořák furiant (more than a Viennese waltz), and an Offenbach galop -- but the music is always unmistakably Britten's. Those who have followed Golijov's woes on meeting deadlines will be amused to know that Britten completed this commission "in a matter of weeks," using one of the lovely melodies composed by his teacher, Frank Bridge, as the basis of inspiration. The ninth variation, Chant, achieves essentially the same effect that Golijov is after in Tenebrae, but it does it far more effectively and in a tenth of the time.

Next season, the Friends of Music series at Dumbarton Oaks will feature performances by pianist Alessio Bax, violinist Ray Chen, the a cappella group Cantus, the Assad Brothers (guitarists), and the Wind Soloists of New York.

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