At a dark season opener, compelling chaos

By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2009

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Madness was afoot at the season-opening concert of the talented and intrepid chamber orchestra A Far Cry. Titled “The Lunatic,’’ the program’s four works touched in varying degrees on the idea that beneath placid surfaces lurk dark forces, ready to erupt without warning.

They led off with Heinrich Biber’s “Battalia á 10,’’ a musical dramatization of warfare. About half the time it acts like a proper Baroque concerto; the other half contains effects that make it sound amazingly modern. In the second movement, each instrument plays a different melody in a different key and tempo from the others. The wonderfully unhinged result sounds like Charles Ives transported back to the 17th century.

Francesco Geminiani’s Concerto Grosso No. 3 was a better behaved specimen of Baroque craftsmanship. Alternating between four soloists and the rest of the group, the ensemble got a chance to show off a sound that was both full and transparent.

Christopher Hossfeld’s odd yet compelling “concerto GROSSO’’ for 18 strings, received its first performance. Each of its three movements refers to death; offsetting the gloom is a sense of mischief and irony. The second movement, “. . . AND ZOMBIES,’’ is a fugue for 18 voices that the composer’s program note calls “quite disgusting to behold.’’ The finale opens seriously, with a beautiful passage for four violas, but later morphs into a rustic folk dance before sliding back into the unsettling dissonances with which the piece opens.

That clash of opposites was heard to much subtler and more sinister effect in Alfred Schnittke’s Concerto Grosso No. 1, for two violins, harpsichord, prepared piano, and strings. Here, in effect, was a real zombie: At times Schnittke’s piece acts like an ordinary Baroque concerto, but before long the human exterior falls away, replaced by something eerie and disturbing. Dark, atonal harmonies pile up, a tango breaks out in the harpsichord, and the music builds to fever pitches of intensity. At the end the music seems to collapse under the weight of its metamorphoses, leaving only the bleak fragments of its former self.

It is hard to imagine a more brilliant reading than the one A Far Cry offered. Full of energy, it navigated Schnittke’s line between chaos and order with absolute confidence. Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, of the Jupiter Quartet, were the excellent violin soloists; Andrus Madsen ably handled the keyboards. A Far Cry’s audience may not have filled Jordan Hall, but whatever it lacked in numbers it made up for with sheer enthusiasm. It was not difficult to understand why.


At: Jordan Hall, Friday

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