Sunday, February 1, 2015

A Far Cry
Dreaming and Praying all the way to the Grammy’s

As a musician living and working in Boston for over eight years, I am embarrassed to admit that I had never attended a performance by A Far Cry until this past September. Not to make excuses, but I had filed AFC away in the “I’ll Do That Eventually” quadrant of my brain while I was completing degrees. It was the lure of Augustin Hadelich performing Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata (Zinman/Pushkarev’s arrangement for chamber orchestra) that finally drew me to Jordan Hall.  I was struck by AFC’s precision, attention to detail, sensitivity to color, and the exuberance they brought to their performance in general. What impressed me more, however, was the careful thought and consideration given to the structure of the program itself.

I like to consider myself an architect in the delicate craft of playlist assembly (formerly called “mix-taping”). Long drives, spin classes, rainy day hangs with friends, bridesmaids getting our hair done in her mom’s kitchen before our best friend’s wedding: all occasions that command the perfect playlist. It’s not just the content that matters; it’s the flow. I only believe in “shuffle” under specific circumstances. It bothers me when I put the wrong song in the wrong place in the wrong playlist; in the same way it bothers me when concert programming is curated out of convenience rather than consideration. For better or worse, most groups at least feign thoughtfulness when it comes to programming (“We’ve got a Rachmaninoff symphony, Barber concerto, one Strauss tone poem, and we want to throw in this Takemitsu piece. We’re calling this program Axis and Allies.”), but I think thoughtful programming is an important component in attracting a diverse audience base. This is where A Far Cry really nails it.

I was not at all surprised in December to learn of their 2015 Grammy nomination in the category of Best Chamber/Small Ensemble Performance for Dreams and Prayers. The album examines the relationship music has with religious mysticism and spirituality, and its ability to act as a channel between the physical and spiritual worlds. It is made up of four works, with each composer drawing from his or her own tradition of faith.

The album opens with the chant O ignis spiritus paracliti by Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth-century teacher, theologian, composer, healer, and Saint. The arrangement for a choir of violins playing the chant in unison (with immaculate intonation) sets the tone of the album’s pervading connection between the spiritual and the physical; a theme embodied by the chant’s text itself: O mightiest path which penetrates All, from the height to every Earthly abyss, you compose All, you unite All. 

The newly commissioned Vecd, composed by Mehmet Sanlikol, pursues the aforementioned “height” through the depiction of the traditional Turkish Sufi ceremony.  Vecd signifies the state of ecstasy one experiences with complete surrender to the Devine: the state to which the Melveli (whirling) dervishes aspire in the Sema ceremony.  The opening of the piece is sparse and calm, moves forward through an extensive buildup in intensity, and culminates in an accelerating ostinato to the finish. Linking the intangible mysticism of the subject matter to our earthy senses, Vecd appeals on a visual level, evoking the swirling image of the dervish in the imagination.

The album’s namesake (and main attraction) lies at its core: Osvold Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. Originally composed for Klezmer clarinet and string quartet, the most famous recording has to be the 1997 album by David Krakauer and the Kronos Quartet. I first encountered the arrangement for string orchestra in 2008 when I was fortunate enough to perform with Todd Palmer as part of the InCite Festival at Town Hall in New York. Todd Palmer was incredible, but unfortunately with limited rehearsal time, the orchestra was in over their heads. But, I did fall in love with the piece, and consequently purchased (and abused) the Kronos album for close to a year (until it died). For me, the marriage of badass David Krakauer with rockstar Kronos Quartet (literally: they even cover Jimmy Hendrix) would be a tough act to follow. Although I was looking forward to hearing Krakauer play the Golijov in a different environment, I was prepared to feel underwhelmed by A Far Cry’s version…

Lesson learned: Never doubt a Crier! I recently had the pleasure of playing alongside AFC founding member Jae Young Cosmos Lee in the Cape Symphony Orchestra, and he told me that AFC and Golijov have formed a close relationship over the past several years: “Our ensemble has played a lot of Golijov, from the very beginning. We recorded Last Round on our debut album. It’s felt organic for us to become a Golijov practitioner.”

While Vecd arouses the sense of sight, the Golijov channels sound straight from the ears to the soul. It is as if the music renders you… oh, I don’t know… blind? Jae told me that he first heard the original version live, by the Cleveland Quartet with Giora Feidman, who performed the world premier in 1994. “When you’re listening to that in your teens, and you’re very impressionable, it kind of gets to you. You think: Oh my God, that’s unplayable. There’s such an improv nature to it, and of course you have to have a clarinetist who understands the language.” A Far Cry’s performance with Krakauer perfectly captures what Golijov had intended: “…blindness is as important in this work as dreaming and praying. I had always the intuition that, in order to achieve the highest possible intensity in a performance, musicians should play, metaphorically speaking, ‘blind’… Blindness, then, reminded me of how to compose music as it was in the beginning: An art that springs from and relies on our ability to sing and hear, with the power to build castles of sound in our memories.”

A castle of sound is the perfect description for AFC's interpretation of Beethoven's Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lycischen Tonart (Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian Mode) from his String Quartet Op. 132. Though baptized a Roman Catholic, Beethoven was not a particularly devout Christian. Even the most obstinate non-believers, however, will often appeal to a higher power when forced to grapple withe their mortality. To uphold their end of the bargain when death is postponed is far less common. This middle movement from Op. 132 is Beethoven publicly, sincerely, and humbly saying "thank you". 

I would be remiss not to make some mention of the engineering of this album. Jesse Lewis is already a three-time Grammy Award winning producer and recording engineer. He scouted the site for recording the album in Fall River, Massachusetts: presently recognized as the location of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez’s trial for three separate murder charges.  But, it is also the home of the magnificent Sacred Heart Church, which houses an acoustic that Jae tells me is like “a bathtub times a thousand”. You can hear the sound just swimming throughout in the hall, and what’s lost in intimacy is made up for in ethereal resonance.

All four works on the album are technically brilliant, and AFC’s execution is pristine, yet exciting. With the announcement of the Grammy winners fast approaching on Sunday, February 8th, AFC is in excellent company in their category. Among the other nominees are Hilary Hahn (with Cory Smythe), and Steven Isserlis (with Olli Mustonen).  Dreams and Prayers deserves its nomination (and potential win) for not only AFC’s stellar performance, but moreover for their profound dedication to the album’s poignant premise. With the standard model of orchestral performance currently on the decline, AFC is likely to sustain their audience of experienced and novice listeners alike through their deep and meaningful commitment to thematic programming.  

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