Sunday, October 30, 2011


Sheila-current3By Sheila Abrams

You might call it democracy. Or to some it may look like anarchy. But in the end it sounds divine, when the youthful chamber orchestra, A Far Cry, flouts musical convention to do its own thing.

Delaying an apparently eagerly anticipated visit to White Castle in Hackettstown, the group of 17 young musicians from Boston stopped long enough to wow an appreciative audience with a marvelous concert on Oct. 22, in the Sitnik Theatre of the Lackland Center on the campus of Centenary College. Actually, the White Castle was a lucky surprise. “We don’t have White Castle in Boston,” one of the violinists told the audience. “Fortunately, they’re open late.”

For the audience, the concert was a great treat. Classical music has not been much in evidence since the handsome new performing venue opened last year, and those of us who enjoy hearing it live generally have to travel.

The democracy/anarchy observation recognizes the fact that, among these talented string players, there is no String-Player-in-Chief. This group plays without a conductor. The signal to begin is so subtle that, even if you are watching for it, you will probably miss it. And it travels. It’s not always the same person. The musicians’ positions on the stage also change with each piece. Considering the hierarchical, often dictatorial structure of the normal orchestra, this is radical. But if you think of them as an overgrown string quartet, it makes sense.

The program they played was intriguing. They began with the Triple Quartet by contemporary American composer Steve Reich. Widely respected by some critics as one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, Reich is a master of minimalism, the music aggressively repetitive. The Triple Quartet represented the style with irritating precision.

As if rewarding us, the ensemble moved on to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, called Serioso, arranged for string orchestra. This piece was composed in 1814, a time of great personal upheaval in Beethoven’s life, but also a period of great musical creativity. The quartet, while majestic in its classicism, has some surprises that make it sound unexpectedly modern at moments.

For sheer melodic beauty, the Ancient Airs and Dances, Suite No. 3 by Italian composer Ottorino Respighi won the prize. Respighi, who lived from 1879 to 1936, might be expected to ride the cusp between late Romanticism and Modernism. Instead, his work is steeped in the Baroque, taking old themes and reframing them in unique orchestrations.

One major difference between Respighi and Antonin Dvorak, whose Serenade for Strings in E major closed the program, is in the area of thematic development. Like the Italian composer, Dvorak’s was rich in melody. The Czech composer, however, was brilliant at developing themes. The Serenade, like much of his music, contains echoes of Bohemian folk melodies of his youth. In his later years, including a lengthy and productive visit to the U.S., during most of which he lived in New York City, he incorporated American folk themes in compositions like his Symphony No. 9, From the New World, and his String Quartet in F, The American Quartet.

We are grateful to the Centenary Stage Company for making this gesture of recognition of the sorely-neglected audience for classical music and hope more stellar classical musicians will follow in the footsteps of the marvelous A Far Cry. And maybe the young Bostonians will come back. White Castle can be used as an enticement.