Pre-Cried Joy

Caroline Shaw (file photo)

The self-conducting and democratic string orchestra A Far Cry has a long-standing reputation throughout and beyond the Boston area for innovative and intriguing programming. Returning to the virtual stage for “The Shape of Joy,” the Criers put their usual exuberance to good use.

As A Far Cry has no permanent conductor or music director, a different member of the orchestra carefully curates each concert. This week, violinist Megumi Stohs Lewis selected Akshaya Avril Tucker’s Breathing Sunlight, Caroline Shaw’s Limestone and Felt, and Mozart’s first string quintet. Lewis averred in a brief introduction that the three chamber works are joyous in their own ways.

Robyn Bollinger and Rafael Popper-Keizer began with Tucker’s Breathing Sunlight for violin and cello. Tucker’s youthful studies of Indian Odissi dance and influences from South Asian music unsurprisingly filter into much of her music, including this duet. As a reflection of this Indian inheritance as well as Tucker’s background as a classical cellist, the score includes many extended techniques like pizzicati, glissandi, harmonics, and quarter tones. These combine to create powerful effects of sliding in and out of consonance, with regular resolutions on octaves or unisons acting as a guiding framework throughout.

In a subsequent pre-recorded discussion with Lewis, Tucker revealed how in Breathing Sunlight she had attempted to create an “atmosphere” of meditation and, as the title suggests, controlled breathing. But the duet ranges far from drone music; instead, Tucker portrayed her own “reflections and observations on finding peace” in a “not perfect stillness” rather than an ideal meditative state.

The work takes its form from this narrative. A single movement, the duet is roughly in three parts, a slower introduction, a faster middle section, and a closing which combines elements from the previous portions. At the risk of reading too much into Tucker’s account, the opening resembles the desired state of meditation, which is continually interrupted, before ending in equilibrium of quietness: a perfect representation of the difficulty of finding inner peace.

Jason Fisher then joined Popper-Keizer for Shaw’s Limestone & Felt— a dramatic contrast. Shaw reported to us and to the performers that she had considered the juxtaposition of the stone mass of cathedrals with ritualistic, felt-bottomed religious implements delicately used in these immense spaces. In order to conjure up echoes on stone, Shaw demanded a variety of percussive effects, including very effective Bartok pizzicato. In this short duet, a successful encapsulation of Shaw’s image, these echoes neatly mix with bowed passages.

Both Limestone & Felt and Breathing Sunlight involved complicated techniques and surely presented potential pitfalls in rehearsal. Yet Popper-Keizer, Bollinger, and Fisher executed with aplomb, giving thoughtful, delicate, and—yes—joyful readings.

Mozart’s String Quintet No. 1 in B-flat Major, K. 174 comes from composer’s 17th year. Like the rest of his six examples in that form, it features two violas alongside two violins and cello. Soaring melodies, motoric accompaniment, and ample fast runs in the first movement, Allegro moderato, set the tone for the entirety of the delightful piece. Even in the quintet’s most tranquil moments during the following Adagio, Mozart rarely departs from this cheerful character. The third movement, a minuet and trio, includes segmented melodic lines that, in this instance, felt lively rather than fragmented. The ensemble also rightly presented Mozart’s sudden dissonances in the trio as a result of youthful exuberance and experimentation rather than dark clouds on the horizon. The quintet ends with a jubilant final movement where 16th-note scales abound. It would be hard to argue that Mozart was anything but joyful while writing this piece.

Akshaya Avril Tucker (file photo)

Violinists Jesse Irons and Annie Rabbat, violists Caitlin Lynch and Sarah Darling, and cellist Loewi Lin showed off their skill, as melodies generously moved among them. Lin, whose accompanimental part is the exception, aptly delivered a stable yet sensitive grounding. Purists would have bristled at some of the performers’ most energetic flourishes, but they fit the evening’s premise well. Musicologists have long argued that Mozart personally preferred to perform on the viola, and his love for the instrument—as well as his boyish charm—were plainly in evidence here.

While Lewis’s selection of K174 seemed uncomplicated, she did enlighten us that the powerful ending of Breathing Sunlight represented happiness as a deliberate choice. And she felt that the “pinging” sounds in Limestone & Felt resembled a multitude of emotions bouncing around the mind. Lewis’s explanations, as well as the brief interviews with Tucker and Shaw, took full advantage of the streaming medium. Receiving the composers’ insights and seeing their living rooms provided refreshing intimacy and honesty.

I also appreciated A Far Cry’s decision to intersperse photos of beautiful spaces of the Athenæum between works. These brief pauses also cleverly served to prepare viewers for things to come. Expert sound engineering masked the un-concert hall acoustic of the library space.

Instead of canned “outro music” after the quintet, Mozart’s triumphant final chord should have been allowed to ring on as one last reminder that, in such difficult times, this evening of joy was truly welcome.

The program remains available online for various lengths of time at mixed price ranges HERE.

Gareth Cordery, a first-year Ph.D. student in Historical Musicology at Columbia University under Walter Frisch, majored in Music and History Middlebury College. He has performed piano concertos with symphonies across the United States, and lives in New York City.