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Review: A Far Cry proficient, music hard to gauge

Saturday, January 19, 2013
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— A Far Cry made its debut Saturday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall in an unusual program of varied appeal. The 17-member string ensemble is based in Boston and doesn’t use a conductor.

None of the four works on the program are often performed, which meant that unless people in the small crowd had heard A Far Cry before, they had nothing to gauge how effective its interpretations were. It was all a kind of mystery, even to the pieces.

Nine of the ensemble opened with Oswaldo Golijov’s “Last Round,” which was an homage to tango composer Astor Piazzolla. Gritty, intense strings knocked off tango-like lines in a tight ensemble. As everyone stood to play, except for the cellist, some of them tapped their feet in time or emoted physically as they got into the frenetic, urgent music as it built to the many climaxes.

The second movement was a long sigh against the beautiful tune “My Beloved Buenos Aires” written by Carlos Gardel in the 1930s. The nine played with a total commitment, only to have the music slowly fade away.

In Arvo Pärt’s “Fratres,” the entire ensemble played with two on either wood block or bass drum. Like much of his music, this piece was just as ethereal and mystical. It began as if from a distance with high violins alternating with gentle taps from the percussion. While the melodic line rarely altered, the volume increased even as the other instruments slowly joined until the volume was at a loud level and then began to diminish. It was like a slow moving body getting closer only to recede. The film “Melancholia” came to mind.

The players showed great control over the various dynamic levels, kept the melodic line pure without vibrato, and were exact in their pitch and entrances.

Heinrich von Biber’s “Battalia” of 1673 showed off the group’s sparkling technique in buoyant, perky tempos even as they stamped their feet or slapped their strings to simulate drunken soldiers, gunfire, or lamenting their wounded comrades.

A Far Cry took on William Walton’s multi-layered Sonata for Strings, which was much more difficult for the ensemble. Even as the violins soared in romantically beautiful lyrical lines, dark harmonies agitated beneath, sometimes in fugal form. Edgy quick sections suddenly had moments of silence or frothy intense passages built with unexpected busy rhythms.

Everything was done with much feeling and capability, and pacing, which was tricky throughout, was fairly tight. The crowd enthusiastically applauded, whistled and cheered and got an encore: a mellow, sweet arrangement of Gershwin’s “Embraceable You.”

 
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