Metaphorically Misty

As the cobbler-together of this program, let me be the first to admit: “Misty” was probably not the best choice of name, if only because the opening words, to be sung by our soloist, Dashon Burton, will be:

     The sea is calm tonight, 
     The tide is full, the moon lies fair
     Upon the straits […]

… in other words, not a cloud in sight. I’m pretty sure I assumed that, because “Dover Beach” is set in England, it must be foggy. I was not paying close attention.

And no better for the song cycle that closes the concert, Hanns Eisler’s Ernste Gesänge, which I only knew from the fabulous recording made by Ensemble Resonanz (a release that includes none other than our very own Erik Higgins, back in his formative European days). Having purchased the album online, I was deprived of the essential liner notes and translations that I might know what exactly was being sung about; all I knew was that it was downright lovely music.

Intuitively, though, I think I had a sense that the two pieces might have something in common, and there I may have lucked into some truth. First that the texts of both works deal with despairing at the state of the world. In the Barber:

     Sophocles long ago
     Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
     Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
     Of human misery; we
     Find also in the sound a thought,
     Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

Then in the Eisler:

     There is nothing that would be worthy of your efforts,
     And the earth does not deserve a sigh.
     Pain and boredom are our lot
     And the world is filth, nothing else. Be calm.

At the same time the texts are hopeful at their core, believing that humankind can do better, and that there is happiness to found in this world. Dover Beach’s final stanza begins:

     Ah, love, let us be true
     To one another! for the world […] seems
      To lie before us like a land of dreams, 
     So various, so beautiful, so new,

And the Eisler songs include this stanza, in the final poem:

     To him too the image of brighter times is announced,
     And what was long a glorious promise
     Wafts through the silence
     And makes it beautiful.

The musical settings employed by Barber and Eisler, drawing on these similar outlooks, make for an interesting contrast. Both treatments are notable for their restraint, only going full heart-on-sleeve in a few moments. Where they differ might stem from a factor outside the music, namely age: that Barber wrote his piece as a young man, as a student, whereas Eisler’s Ernste Gesänge were completed in the year of his death, his last complete work. Based on that, one senses Barber looking ahead to a life in this imperfect world, filled with a sense of trepidation and anxiety. Eisler, on the other hand, inhabits more of a philosophical and ruminative place, perhaps becoming more bitter at times, but ultimately ends truly hopeful and at peace.

Going back to the idea of “Misty,” then, the concept might be best thought of as a kind of metaphorical fog of melancholy thoughts. In assembling the program, then, I began to think about what might come out of, or result from, that place. Sometimes a walk in the fog can be invigorating, leading to youthful excitement (Dag Wiren’s Serenade) verging on ecstasy (Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa); at others, a misty day can lead us down a more introverted path, to a zen-like state (Toru Takemitsu’s The Dorian Horizon), or the opposite, to feelings of sadness and anguish (Josef Suk’s Meditation).

In that sense, the program is meant to be a miniature drama in two acts, with a bit of a Citizen Kane-like arc; beginning and ending in the mists, emerging from the first cloud drawing on Barber’s youthful energy, then returning, drawing back towards Eisler’s acceptance and wistfulness. 

To what degree this narrative will come across is anyone’s guess; lucky then that all six works are phenomenal in their own right, and not performed nearly often enough!

- Michael Unterman

Listen to recordings of Dover Beach and Ernste Gesänge

Misty notes

Notes for our "Misty" program, written by Kathryn Bacasmot. Enjoy! 

Samuel Barber (1910-1981) ::  Dover Beach, Op. 3

Occasionally, a composer comes along who seems largely untouched by the usual struggle for work and recognition. Samuel Barber was one of them. The son of a prominent physician, and nephew to an opera singer and composer, he was only seven years old when he started writing music. At nine he knew he wanted to compose professionally (famously proclaiming in a letter to his mother, “I was meant to be a composer...Don’t ask me to try to forget this unpleasant thing and go play football”). His first operetta was written at age ten (libretto provided by the family cook). By age twelve he was a church organist (a job he quickly lost for refusing to hold the fermatas). He eventually went on to study conducting with Fritz Reiner and George Szell, and after his graduation, received many commissions from a wide variety of people (including Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers, who commissioned his Piano Sonata).

Barber’s sound is a unique blend of late 19th century lyricism and tonality mixed with the rhythms, dissonances, and angularities of modernist styles. His is a lean, muscular, romanticism where even beautiful and tender melodies always seem underpinned by a singular, focused intensity (listen to his most famous piece, the Adagio for Strings, and you will hear that fundamental sonic interaction). This singular quality of sound he brought to his compositions was evident early on—including Dover Beach, which was written in 1931, during Barber’s time studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In addition to studying piano and composition, his baritone voice gained recognition, and it was Barber who sang at the premiere.

There is something about standing on a shoreline that seems to immediately speak to us of uncertainty, change, possibility and loss all at once. Matthew Arnold’s 1867 poem, Dover Beach, expresses those sentiments set against the dramatic shoreline of towering white cliffs at the narrowest part of the English Channel. Throughout Barber’s work the shape of the musical phrasings compliments the text: pulsing, ebbing, flowing, swelling, and ceasing. When the famous British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams heard Barber’s setting one year later, he exclaimed “I tried several times to set Dover Beach, but you really got it!”

Dag Wirén (1905-1986) :: Serenade for Strings, Op. 11

Dag Wirén’s Serenade for strings rushes in like a warm summer breeze. Enveloping the listener in light, gorgeous melodies, it harkens back to classical and romantic works that share the title of serenade (by Mozart, Dvořák, or Tchaikovsky, for example). Having studied in Paris for three years from 1931-1934 on a state stipend from his native Sweden, Wirén had the opportunity to meet none other than Igor Stravinsky. He also became familiar with the music of the loosely associated group of French composers known as Les Six (The Six): Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc and Germaine Tailleferre. This collective tended toward creating music with a lighter, almost neo-classical spirit in contrast with the more modernist trends that were popular amongst many artists of the time. Written only three years after his Parisian adventure, this Serenade from 1937 exudes an energy seemingly derived from Les Six’s compositional style, who perhaps influenced Wirén’s penchant for writing in this more traditional manner.  

Wojciech Kilar (1932-2013) :: Orawa

Polish composer Wojciech Kilar carved out an illustrious career as a film composer writing the original soundtracks for Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Francis Ford Coppola), The Pianist (Roman Polanski), The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion), and many, many more. Before delving into the world of film, Kilar was on the rise as a composer of concert music, having trained with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and coming into prominence on the world stage with fellow Polish composers Henryk Górecki and Krzysztof Penderecki.

Orawa is part of a larger group of works (not meant to be performed as a set) centering on a theme of the Tatra Mountain range that define the “natural” border between northern Slovakia and southern Poland. Having grown up in Katowice in southwestern Poland, Kilar retained a special memory of the Tatras, as do many individuals from that region, recalling the beautiful majesty of the mountains, and holidays spent in Zakopane, at the base. The other two works are Kościelec (a specific mountain peak in the range) and Grey Mist.

Tōru Takemitsu (1930-1996) :: The Dorian Horizon

In 1889, at age 27, Claude Debussy (1862-1918) attended the Exposition Universelle in Paris and encountered, for the first time, music of the Asian continent: gamelan music from Java. The non-Western tonal system forever influenced his compositional modality. Some sixty years later a teenager in Japan, Tōru Takemitsu, discovered Western music when a military officer played a recording for him of a French chanson, and he continued to delve into learning about Western music on an American military base where he was employed after World War II. What he heard drove him to pen and paper, and he began to teach himself how to compose receiving only occasional lessons.

Debussy was very influential on the young Takemitsu, as was another French composer, Olivier Messiaen. In another twist, it was the music and writings of John Cage, whose philosophy of music and sound was informed by Asian traditions that, in turn, led Takemitsu to re-discover elements of Japanese music. As a result of these inspirations, Takemitsu’s music expresses a unique blend of chromatics, tonalities, and space (both in the use of register—high and low tones at the extremes—and silence).

String music is typically reliant upon the technique of vibrato to provide warmth of sound—akin to a human voice singing. But here, no vibrato exists. The sound is profoundly pure, and piercing, The Dorian Horizon has a sonic landscape that evokes sheets of glacial ice shifting against one another, or perhaps endless grains of sand: it has been noted that it takes its cue from the Takemitsu’s soundtrack for Woman in the Dunes, a 1964 Japanese new wave film directed by Hiroshi Teshigahara about a man who finds himself trapped in mysterious circumstances in a sand quarry.

Josef Suk (1874-1935) :: Meditation on an Old Czech Hymn, “St. Wenceslas,” Op. 35a

One of Suk's most famous teachers was Antonín Dvořák, who was not just a source of musical instruction and inspiration for the young composer, but the man who would eventually become his father-in-law.

Bedřich Smetana and Dvořák were two composers responsible for grafting in, and emphasizing, Czech folk idioms or programmatic elements into their compositions, and featuring them in concerts of largely German programming. As the Austro-Hungarian Empire strained under the pressure of ethnic groups grasping for more independence, this was not simply an aesthetic choice, but also a political statement via cultural assertion. Their students would follow suit, though it has been observed that Suk's compositions eventually used fewer and fewer Czech idioms, perhaps in an effort to stop comparisons between his music and Dvořák’s.

The hymn (or chorale) “St. Wenceslas” dates from at least the 12th century, with text petitioning St. Wenceslas—the patron saint of Bohemia—for protection and salvation. As 1914 dawned, the world stage was set for war on an astonishing scale. That summer, World War I loomed, and Suk observed his fortieth birthday. His countrymen prepared for battle, and he wrote this work.

Hanns Eisler (1898-1962) :: Ernste Gesänge (Serious Songs)

Eisler is one of the most intriguing characters in the world of “classical” music, though he is hardly ever mentioned. He was not without controversy, which has likely contributed to the silence with which he is most often greeted in conversations about 20th century composers.

With little funding, but lots of ambition, he became a student of Arnold Schoenberg from 1919-1923. Through the encouragement and support of his teacher, he was able to secure publication and performances. The relationship would grow bitter, however, with Schoenberg considering him “disloyal,” and a traitor to music, after Eisler embraced Marxism and became a member of the German Communist party. As a result of his politics, his views on the avant-garde music of his peers—and even his own previous works—changed drastically. Reflecting on his new outlook, Eisler wrote, “in our new music, one would search in vain for bombast, sentimentality and mysticism, but find instead freshness, intelligence, strength and elegance,” and, “modern music bores me, it doesn’t interest me, some of it I even hate and despise...Also I understand nothing (except superficialities) of twelve-note technique and twelve-note music”—a clear dismissal of his former mentor. For Eisler, music should not frivolously stir the emotions, but rather be functional, applicable, non-elitist, and “used for the theater, cinema, cabaret, television, public events, etc.” David Blake notes Eisler’s scores “abound with such cautionary directives as ‘without sentimentality,’ ‘simply,’ ‘friendly,’ and even ‘politely.’”

During World War II, and the years leading up to it, Eisler traveled Europe before coming to New York City to teach composition. The Mexico conservatory gave Eisler a grant to study the “function of film music,” and through his work there, he wrote the book Composing for the Films with Theodor Adorno. Returning to the United States, Eisler found work at the University of Southern California and contributed to film scores. It all came to a screeching halt when his politics landed him a meeting with The House Committee on Un-American Activities, and he was subsequently “expelled.” In many ways it was likely the best outcome for Eisler. His return after years abroad to a new Germany—East Germany—allowed him to practice the political ideology he had been preaching.

Ernste Gesänge would be Eisler’s last work. He died shortly after its completion. The texts are taken from the works of Friedrich Hölderlin, Giacomo Leopardi, and Stephan Hermlin. Eisler remarked about the songs: “It is reflection—deliberation—depression—recovery—and reflection again...It just must be done that way, otherwise it is not good. One cannot always write optimistic must describe the up and down of the actual situations, sing about it and comment on it.”

Eighteen Far Flyers Flocking

The official version of this post is on the website of the Boston Musical Intelligencer and can be read here. Complete text follows. Enjoy! 

In the expectant room a quiet composer, 18 musicians with 18 individual parts. The musicians count to 4 together, a silent “measure for nothing.” That’s the last gesture we’ll make together for most of the first movement of the new work we’re rehearsing for our concert at Jordan Hall on Friday

One by one, we Criers enter, playing quiet strings of harmonics and brief patterns of notes. We are eighteen birds, a group that is not yet a flock. Since we never play at exactly the same time, we follow a lovingly notated string of cues through the chaos of our tweets and flutters. We wonder together about how best to keep the invisible beat steady moving forward. At first, we assign the job of pulse-keeper to one individual, mirrored by others. But this is clumsy and creates a strange central point in the nearly aleatoric texture. Eventually we agree on a system where whoever is playing the cued line has the group’s attention – and in case of that person making a mistake, the next one can reset, and the next, and the next.

This whole scene, the whole conversation, the different techniques we try—it’s all somehow extremely relevant. We’re a democratic, self-conducted orchestra, and we’re getting ready to premiere a piece which is all about a group of birds learning how to govern themselves in the search for enlightenment. Lembit Beecher, the quiet composer, has known A Far Cry for a long time (and married one of our cellists, Karen Ouzounian, this past summer.) This piece he has written for us, titled The Conference Of The Birds, had its genesis nearly two years ago, and is coming to life now as a portrait, a meditation, and perhaps, a challenge.

In Lembit’s words:

The Conference of the Birds” is a 12th-century Sufi epic poem by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. It tells a story about the birds of the world who gather together in a time of strife. Led by the hoopoe bird, they decide to set out on a long journey to find their king. Many birds desert or die along the journey, but after passing through valley after valley, the remaining 30 arrive at a lake at the top of a mountain. Looking in the lake at their own reflection, they finally see their king. I first came across it through an adaptation by the brilliant Czech-American illustrator and author Peter Sís. … What drew me to Sís’s version, aside from the expressive, textural drawings which so suggested music, was the deep sense of loss in the pages. So many birds are left by the wayside during this journey towards truth and enlightenment. Does progress or attempted progress always come at a cost?

When I began talking to A Far Cry about writing a piece, I realized this would be a perfect project for the group. Having gotten to know the group, I wanted to write music for individual personalities: each member of the ensemble has his/her own part. These parts join each other in different combinations, but just as quickly split up again. The leadership of the music, and the relationship of individuals to the group is always changing. As I wrote I thought about the power of crowds, and the value of individuality versus unity, but I also thought about the players of A Far Cry, and how much I admire the way they function as an ensemble, share leadership, and make music together.

As we reach the end of the first movement, the musical lines begin to “infect” and inform each other. The birds begin to converse with each other, and as they do, a collective pulse emerges out of the texture. As this grows in intensity and shared purpose, the birds’ intention unifies into a single powerful flapping of wings. Slowly accelerating, they reach a lift-off point and start flowing up together into the sky. The violins of A Far Cry soar higher and higher on their instruments until we can barely hear them – and barely see the flock, now impossibly far away, which has now embarked on its perilous journey.

This is only the beginning for the birds, but it gives us plenty of food for thought. How do you move from a state of stasis to a state of movement? How do you move from a collection of like-minded individuals to a group unified enough to actually be capable of powering its own flight? We’ve spent years wrestling with – and living out – these questions.

Now here we are, playing a program, anchored by Lembit’s new piece, that addresses some of these issues head on. In the rest of the concert, we present two unconventional double concertos—Bach’s Concerto for Two Violins and Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa – and some haunting “pilgrim” music; selections from the 12th-century Codex Calixtinus. The concertos, played by Stefan Jackiw and Alexi Kenney, are as much vehicles for collaboration as they are for virtuosity, and circumvent the traditional ideal of central leadership.

As Karen Ouzounian, one of the program’s co-curators, puts it:

We wanted to explore the idea of leaders, false prophets, the search for enlightenment. We have these incredible soloists coming to join us, but the pieces they’re playing aren’t exactly flashy solo concerti. Instead they have a beautiful relationship to the group where the continuo is just as important as the solo voices.

Alex Fortes, the other co-curator, goes even further:

There’s an expression which people often use who have no idea what the original context is; playing second fiddle. It has a pejorative feel to it. And one thing about this concert is that everyone onstage, including each of our soloists, is playing second fiddle at some point in the program. In a way, that’s what it’s about. Sometimes we strive for this ideal, for a strong hierarchy, some leader that will make everything better, or some smooth process. And it never works out that way. Even when things work out beautifully – there’s tension that’s always underlying our best work.

How do you move forward in a situation where all the traditional norms are called into question? Where the traditional values of unchanging, centralized leadership are not necessarily in play? (It’s perhaps worth mentioning here that A Far Cry is absolutely not anti-leader; if anything, the group is full of leaders.) One interesting first step is to “unlearn” some of what you thought you knew, and as such, it was a great pleasure to hear our soloist Stefan Jackiw say this about the Bach Double:

Fortunately, I didn’t play it when I was young! Even though I didn’t study it as a kid, though, I still felt like I had to unlearn all these years of interpretations and varnish lacquered on to the piece, and really strip it away and go back to what Bach wrote.

That ability to “unlearn” has been on beautiful display from both Stefan and Alexi all week long, as they’ve worked within the framework offered by A Far Cry, making suggestions directly to the group at large, and participating in group discussions on phrasing, tone color, pulse, character – moderated in part by the principal groups for the individual pieces.

Of course, everyone has also learned plenty in this process. After all, it only works if it works, and it works if you can share information accurately and well with each other. No matter what system you use—democratic or dictatorial —the frame needs quality content within it; interesting ideas, virtuosic execution, a commitment to moving the music forward into the best version of itself that we can render.

To return to Lembit’s piece; the end of the work demands a totally different set of musical tools than the beginning. In the opening, we had to represent a distracted, scattered, group; at the end, what remains of the flock is stunningly unified and radiant. For the musicians, that means developing a technique of playing this last section that really sounds entirely like one ecstatic voice. It couldn’t be a more different style than the one we were embodying when the work began.

A complicated work that keeps evolving and presenting us with new issues to address (and allowing us the chance to grow in the process?) Yes please! We wouldn’t have it any other way. If there’s one thing A Far Cry has learned in its first ten years, it is that challenges, even complicated ones, are usually opportunities.

- Sarah Darling 

A Chat with Stefan Jackiw

The official version of this post is on the blog of the Office for the Arts at Harvard and can be read here. Complete text follows. Enjoy! 

The self-conducted orchestra A Far Cry is playing a program that looks like a mini Harvard reunion of artists on Friday, Jan. 13 at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall. Featuring a major new work by composer Lembit Beecher ‘02, the concert was curated by Alex Fortes ‘07 and features soloist Stefan Jackiw ‘06 with Alexi Kenney in a pair of double concertos: the Bach Concerto for Two Violins (aka the “Bach Double”) and by Estonian composer Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt. Sarah Darling ‘02, another member of A Far Cry, talked with Jackiw about his training and the concert. An edited and condensed version of their conversation follows.

You'll be playing Bach and Pärt on this program. A heady pairing. 
The Bach is of course one of the most well-known pieces in the repertoire. And it's actually my first time playing the piece.

So you didn't play it when you were 3? 
No, I didn't play it when I was 3, and thankfully so. Even though I didn't study it as a kid, I still felt like I had to "unlearn" all these years of interpretations and varnish lacquered on to the piece, and really strip it away and go back to what Bach wrote. And there's so much there, such a pairing of song and dance. The second movement is one of the most songful, soaring, vocal pieces ever, and the outer movements are filled with visceral energy that I feel is connected to dance and the human body. So that's really fun to really dive into for the first time at age 31.

When you started physically playing the piece were there any "aha" moments? 
More in the dance realm, because there's this sort of innate physicality about dance, and the piece - the first movement - features a ton of string crossing that requires you to move your elbow back and forth to support the bow. And that kind of written-in physicality brings out a sense of down and up buoyancy and tension and release, which I think enhances the performance of it. So that was an interesting thing to experience, that the physicality of it actually enhances the content of the music. The Arvo Pärt is actually a piece that I've never heard before being asked to join AFC for these concerts. I find Pärt's music really soulful and touching and moving in a kind of Zen way. But it's not just peaceful Zen; there's also a kind of forlorn tragedy, something kind of sorrowful about it.

How do you see Pärt creating that sense in the music? 
There's a huge sense of space, both in terms of the temporal unfolding of the piece, but also in the range of pitches, often pairing a low note against some very high notes in the upper voices. And those two boundaries draw attention to the chasm in between. You know, this piece reminds me a little bit of some crazy NASA footage. Or like that movieGravity, where your attention is drawn to the fact hat you're just a speck in the cosmos, and the vastness — in that case, the visual universe, and in this case, the tonal/aural universe. I think this piece captures the same thing using different means.

You're originally from Boston. How does it feel to be playing here? 
I lived in Boston for the first 22 years of my life, growing up here and doing my undergrad at Harvard. And it's good to be back. I like performing in Boston because I grew up going to concerts in Jordan Hall, Symphony Hall, Sanders Theatre. There's a lot of personal history for me there, both as an audience member and as a performer. And also, there’s just something about coming home, bringing music that I have learned home. It feels nice. It feels warm. It's also fun to come back to Boston the city and experience it as an adult. When I was at Harvard, I was always on campus, and literally the day after my graduation I moved to New York. So I never explored the city as an adult. I mostly stayed where my family was, and where my school was. So it's great fun getting to know the city now with a different set of experiences.

The Conference of the Birds notes

Program notes for this Friday's concert, The Conference of the Birds, written by Kathryn Bacasmot.



It is thanks to a handful of codices that have miraculously survived wear and tear, weather, war, fire, or any of a laundry list of types of loss, that we have a concrete connection to the thoughts and music of the past. The Codex Calixtinus, which deals mostly with accounts of the life and work of Saint James, is attributed to Pope Callixtus II and originates from the 12th century for pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, or “Way of St. James,” pathways that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of the saint are said to be at rest.

The manuscript is divided into several books and appendixes, three of which include music. Valued as early examples of polyphony (or music with multiple lines occurring simultaneously, in contrast to the single-line chant that was typical of earlier centuries), the codex includes what some scholars believe is the first (documented) example of music for three voices.


Often referred to by the simple nickname “Bach Double,” Bach’s concerto for two violins remains one of his most popular works. The exact date of composition is unknown, though it begins to appear on lists of Bach’s compositions around 1730.

A likely period for the double concerto’s inception might have been during Bach’s years working for the Prince of Anhalt-Köthen in the early 1720s. Whereas most of Bach’s employment posts revolved around composing music for the church, here his services were directed toward composing secular court music. These years produced the orchestral suites, solo partitas, and the great solo cello suites, among other works.

It is known that Bach’s introduction to the Italian concerto style began during his second tenure in Weimar, where he was employed from 1708-1717. Given his cornerstone status in the world of music today, it can be easy to forget that in his lifetime Bach barely traveled more than a few hundred miles from his hometown, and spent most of his career nurturing and developing his enormous creative capacity in environments that did not always appreciate the scope of his ambitions —ambitions not for fame, but for excellence in every aspect of music making. In an era when the only way to hear music of different composers was through live performance, and copies of music were few, Bach was fortunate enough to have found then opportunity in the court in Weimar to study the scores of the Italians, Antonio Vivaldi (making transcriptions of several of his works) and Arcangelo Corelli (who was a superstar violinist and composer known throughout all of Europe). This proved to be deeply impactful on him, as multiple works in the concerto style would be written (and re-written as Bach tended to repurpose his compositions--the “Double” eventually became the concerto for two harpsichords in C minor, for example) over the rest of his lifetime.


“The Conference of the Birds” is a 12th-century Sufi epic poem by the Persian poet Farid ud-Din Attar. It tells a story about the birds of the world who gather together in a time of strife. Led by the hoopoe bird, they decide to set out on a long journey to find their king. Many birds desert or die along the journey, but after passing through valley after valley, the remaining 30 arrive at a lake at the top of a mountain. Looking in the lake at their own reflection, they finally see their king. I first came across it through an adaptation by the brilliant Czech-American illustrator and author Peter Sís. This was one of the most beautiful books I had ever seen: an adult picture book with an unusual graphic sensibility, a concise and beautifully ambiguous text, and full-page illustrations of mysterious landscapes that carried surprising emotional weight. Numerous adaptations of the original poem, including plays, children’s books and pieces of music, emphasized the story’s simple yet colorful narrative and moral didacticism, but what drew me to Sís’s version, aside from the expressive, textural drawings which so suggested music, was the deep sense of loss in the pages. So many birds are left by the wayside during this journey towards truth and enlightenment. Does progress or attempted progress always come at a cost?

I initially thought about trying to turn the story into an opera - but I realized I was less interested in the narrative scope of the story than in the emotions and visceral energy of specific moments. I also knew I wanted to write music as Sís created his drawings, with strong gestures and lots of small figures combining to form large shapes. A string orchestra seemed perfect for creating solo lines that gathered into clouds of sounds. When I began talking to A Far Cry about writing a piece, I realized this would be a perfect project for the group. Having gotten to know the group, I wanted to write music for individual personalities: each member of the ensemble has his/her own part. These parts join each other in different combinations, but just as quickly split up again. The leadership of the music, and the relationship of individuals to the group is always changing. As I wrote I thought about the power of crowds, and the value of individuality versus unity, but I also thought about the players of A Far Cry, and how much I admire the way they function as an ensemble, share leadership, and make music together. “The Conference of the Birds” is about 20 minutes long and is in three movements. The final two are played without a pause.


ARVO PÄRT (B. 1935)

In the earlier years of his career, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt composed his music in a modernist style, sometimes experimenting with serialism, and atonality. Soviet government officials frowned upon this, but Pärt would soon find an entirely new sound based on ancient tones. After taking time to reevaluate his compositional methods in the late 1970s, along with studying Bach, Gregorian chant, and Russian Orthodox sacred music, Pärt arrived at a new compositional philosophy that he called “tintinnabulation” (“bells”). Explaining the technique, the composer has noted: “Tintinnabulation is like this. Here, I am alone in silence. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played...I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it tintinnabulation.”

Tintinnabuli, the ringing/sound of bells, alludes to the mathematical division of a note’s sound wave into the overtone series, the basis of Western music theory and its harmonic progressions, which is heard in the chaotic timbre of a ringing bell. Essentially, if you strike a single note, you are not just hearing that note but an entire sequence working together (the “fundamental” and its “partials,” to use the lingo). Thus, when you hear A-natural you also sympathetically hear other tones from the A scale in a sequence of 5ths, 4ths, 3rds, and so on: A, E, A, C-sharp, E, etc.—a musical universe orbiting a single note.

For a decade Pärt was effectively silent as he studied, contemplated, and crafted. In 1977 he reemerged with three pieces using tintinnabulation as their compositional syntax: Fratres, Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten, and Tabula Rasa. He has been writing in this style ever since. Tabula Rasa, meaning “blank slate” in Latin, is divided into two sections: Ludus (“games”), and Silentium (“silence”), and was dedicated to the violinist Gidon Kremer, who premiered the piece along with violinist Tatjana Gridenko, and includes a “prepared” piano, where objects are lodged in the instrument’s string to manipulate the emission of a metallic, almost chime-like sound.

After an arresting opening where the two violins play the same pitch (A) in distant octaves the games commence. Silence and sound alternate, and everything revolves around the A pitch with one voice weaving a melody while the other outlines the triad of A minor (A-C-E). Variations on patterns occur throughout the duration, as lines are expanded, contracted, and reversed. In Silentium the lines move in pairs at varying speeds, punctuated by the prepared piano every time the solo violins, whose parts have been slowing adding notes, reach the central note of this movement: D. In the tintinnabular style, there are very few pitches employed, but their distribution in time, and their relationship to the silence that surrounds their existence, builds out the haunting beauty of the sound.


Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

Zoom In: The Classical Mashup

Kate Nottage, one of our NEC Fellows, wrote this fabulous post on A Far Cry's "Zoom In" program and what it meant to her. Enjoy! 

This month, I spent a week rehearsing and performing with A Far Cry on their Zoom In program. I found myself immediately transfixed by the choice of repertoire, admiring its variety. It’s so common as a classical musician to attend and partake in concerts that are monothematic and flat in musical style. We often go to concerts that feature multiple works from one composer or one classical era. I loved the Zoom In repertoire for its musical diversity. As the works by Dutilleux, Webern, Muffat, and O’Connor were played one by one, their differences were illuminated. One of the most magnificent characteristics of classical music is its arc through time – how it’s changed through hundreds of years and especially how it continues to do so right now. It’s incredible when this is illustrated through repertoire choice.

My love for musical age and diversity extends beyond the classical realm. As someone who believes it takes every genre to create a well-balanced musical world, I take great pride in my mental investment in popular music. I’m sometimes guilty of having a short attention span for music, and for this reason I think every so often pop is more suited for my taste than something like an hour-long Bruckner symphony. Sometimes, listening to a three-minute long song that I can sing, dance, tap my foot, and bang my head to is just what I need. My favorite type of non-classical music remains always the same: mash-up. For those of you who aren’t familiar with mash-up, it is basically an electronic layering and synchronization of vocal and instrumental tracks of different popular songs. Though made of recycled music, the product is careful and innovative and its creator, an artist. Mash-up is incessantly captivating. There’s something about the tune of a catchy folk song being set to an R&B beat with guitar riffs from a 2015 billboard hit that is so artistically fresh and undeniably enjoyable. It’s sophisticated, it’s fast-paced, it’s smart. The dichotomy is rich.  

During my week with A Far Cry, I didn’t immediately understand the depth of my fascination with the program. It consisted of, in order, works by Henri Dutilleux, Anton Webern, Georg Muffat, and Mark O’Connor. It was obvious to me even before hearing the music that, because of these composers’ artistic reputations, it would greatly vary in musical style. The Dutilleux was spacious, weightless, and full of flight. Webern was heavy, longing, and thickly pleading. Muffat was joyous, careful, and precious. O’Connor was fun, groovy, and freeing.

I soon realized that to combine these pieces into one cohesive program was only one thing: mash-up. Whether intentional or not, it’s genius. For the hyper-in-thought, eager-for-the-next-thing listener like I sometimes am, this combination of pieces was absolutely perfect.

The order and pacing of the music was incredibly captivating. We started with Dutilleux. Hypnotically translucent, Ainsi la Nuit was a mash-up in and of itself. The piece consists of seven movements, each unmistakably distinct in character. Since there were more movements than the typical string quartet, each was considerably brief, and characters seemed to exit as quickly as they entered. I couldn’t help but notice the brisk developments within the piece and how they mirrored the mellifluous passing of melodies in my favorite work of mash-up.

Next up was Langsamer Satz by Anton Webern. This piece, though monothematic, served its purpose in the classical mash-up by insisting its distinct personality. Mahlerian and dramatic, the short piece explored the depths and heights of emotion – the pains and joys of love.

Moving quickly along, the Muffat was next. The inclusion of baroque music at this point in the program was a cheerful change. The Ciacona was pleasant and with constant motion; a tasteful turnaround from the comparably static Webern.

Following this was the Mark O’Connor Quartet No. 3. It was the most perfect piece to play the role of the last piece. Although technically challenging for the musicians, for the listener this music is care-free. It exhibits a well-balanced combination between the freedom of fiddle music and the structure of traditional classical music. Another fitting dichotomy.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized a deeper reason why I love mash-up. There’s something so similar in what I do as an artist to what the mash-up creator does as an artist. I love to take music that’s already been written and interpret it myself. I love to make it my own, to put my stamp on it and make my mark. And isn’t this what the mash-up artist does? He takes preconceived, prenotated, prerecorded music and makes it his own. He puts his stamp on it and makes it the best version it could possibly be, and isn’t that what I do? We infuse our artistry with variations of creativity. We take advantage of changing characters, tempi, rhythm, and harmony. We embrace the differences between melodies within the same piece. We embrace the differences between composers born a hundred years apart. We find beauty in what makes art different.

Zoom In notes

Take an early peek at the notes for this weekend's "Zoom In" show, written as always by the fabulous Kathryn Bacasmot. 

Henri Dutilleux (1946-2009) :: Ainsi la Nuit

Interesting things happen when you ask someone to step outside their usual compositional formats. Primarily the producer of larger scale, orchestral, works, Dutilleux was commissioned by the Koussevitzy Foundation in the late 1970’s to write a string quartet. The result was a work of astounding complexity and scope, symphonic grandeur encapsulated and disseminated by four instruments.

Ainsi la Nuit (Thus the Night) is written in seven sections linked by four “parenthèses” placed between sections I (Nocturne) through V (Constellations). With no formal pauses between sections, it is experienced as a single expanse of sound. Structurally, it relies on layer upon layer of musical self-referencing. An opening hexachord (a chord of six notes) presents the palette of intervallic relationships (the space of one note to another) and tones upon which the rest of the piece elaborates. As the music progresses, small segments of ideas and patterns are introduced and used as building blocks. It is sometimes noted that Dutilleux was an admirer of Proust, and some theorists speculate that Ainsi la Nuit was the composer’s way of playing with the idea of embedded memories. We, the audience, hear bits of musical ideas that are introduced or recollected within the sections, or the parenthèses, and when we hear them again, in full or in allusion, our minds begin to perceive the overall impression and totality of the music. In other words, the morsels of music awaken memory in the sensory cup of our ears.

Something perhaps similar, albeit stranger, occurs in our dreams in the night. Our memories mix and mingle with far-flung fragments of information and imagination projected in the theater of our mind’s eye. Thus, the night comes when no shadows lengthen, time seems to suspend, and our longings and memories meld into one.

Anton Webern (1883-1945) :: Langsamer Satz
The feelings of romantic love are often described in terms of rooms disappearing, and all else fading in the light of the lover’s visage. Langsamer Satz is a “slow movement” without a sonata or a symphony. It stands alone, reveling in its own pleasurable and beautiful melodies. It is the work of a composer in love.

Webern is perhaps most often recalled as one of the two prominent disciples (the other being Alban Berg) of Arnold Schoenberg, the composer who gave to posterity 12-tone music, a philosophy of sound that challenged the presumptions of centuries of music theory. Like his mentor, however, Webern started his compositional career writing in a more lush, late Romantic style (Langsamer Satz is often compared to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht). Perhaps an overly simplistic observation, yet possibly true, would be to say that Webern’s expression of blissful romance needed to be expressed in a more “traditional” lyrical form. There would be time later for disillusionment with the state of art and music in the face of populism, and with a world torn apart by large-scale physical and ideological warfare. At this moment, in 1905, he had returned from a holiday with his beloved, Wilhelmine Mörtl. Nothing else mattered. She would become his wife.

Georg Muffat (1653-1704) :: Ciacona from Concerto Grosso No. XII, Propitia Sydera (To appease the stars)
The Italian violin virtuoso Arcangelo Corelli was at the center of a musical universe revolving around him, both in interest and influence. His renown stretched across the continent, and over to England, where the Italian music (especially of Corelli) was the rage. You either wanted to meet him, or did—and made sure to let everyone know about it.

Georg Muffat, a French composer of Scottish descent, was introduced to the concerti grossi of Corelli (his exact contemporary) during a sojourn to Rome, and subsequently wrote in the genre as well, completing twelve within his lifetime. An exciting instrumental format in the days prior to symphonies, the concerto grosso displayed the virtuosity of a smaller group of instrumentalists in conversation—at times perhaps argument—with a larger ensemble (the “concertino” and the “ripieno,” respectively). Movements of works were often imitative and inspired by dance. A popular one to riff on was the Ciaconna because of its repetitive base line upon which multiple variants of melodic material could be overlaid. Though traditionally a more fast-paced dance, as it became adapted for instrumental music it also was often slowed down to a more somber, or regal pace, as Muffat does here. Echoes of that earlier, jazzy, Ciaconna can still be found carefully embedded within Muffat’s composition; two contrasting versions of the same form, engaging in brilliant dialogue with each other.

Mark O’Connor (b. 1961) :: Quartet No. 3, Old-Time

Violinist and composer Mark O’Connor has dedicated his career to the cultivation and preservation of American music, infusing his work with traditional folk music and styles. About the Quartet No. 3, O’Connor has noted the work was “composed on the occasion marking 400 years of history dating from the days of the first European settlements” in the Hudson Valley. He continues:

For the musical genesis of the Quartet, I initially created phrases from the fiddle that were molded out of old-time fiddling tradition. With technical twists and turns, the phrases became unique and new but all the while still connected to the tradition. It is these phrases that I used as material to create the String Quartet. Through the process of composing, techniques such as re-harmonization, development, canonic applications spill over each other like the Hudson tributaries in the Adirondacks. The counterpoint of the Quartet invigorates and establishes itself. The result is a wholly participating body emphasizing transitions from the traditional to the contemporary in sound and style. The music here is no longer fiddle music as the inventions of the quartet embark on a new story, a new way to play, and with a new musical idea to put forward.

Program Notes by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot. Kathryn is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.

My not so normal week with A Far Cry

Some powerful thoughts on the significance of our "Pau" concert cycle, by one of our NEC Fellows, Alyssa Wang. 

I’ve been a violinist for basically my whole life, so I’m familiar with a typical week in the life of a musician. We are experts at scheduling back-to-back rehearsals and showing up to at least one of them with a pencil. We’re used to forgetting a meal every now and then, and making up for it at the post-concert reception. We’re quite fast walkers when we want to be. This is a normal week. But I know my friends in A Far Cry and I can say that the week of preparation for November 11th’s Jordan Hall concert was anything but normal—because that week of preparation was also the week of America’s presidential election.

When I began to write this post, I did so with trepidation. The wrong words could make the retelling of my time with A Far Cry seem too politically opinionated or one-sided. It was also important that I somehow fit in some details of how amazing it was to experience the inner workings of a community like A Far Cry. And while I don’t wish to increase the divisiveness that has defined this election season, I must stand by my belief that the world of music cannot and should not be separated from current events—including politics. Our week of rehearsals was greatly affected by Tuesday’s Election Day, and we cannot pretend otherwise. I don’t think I could separate the two events even if I wanted to. But rather than describe the political views of the artistic community, I would like to explain what the combination of these two worlds did for me in the days following the election and beyond.

To start, I’m not actually a member of A Far Cry—I’m one of New England Conservatory’s student fellows. But I’ve been following A Far Cry for a few years, since before I moved to Boston to continue my studies in violin. What has always struck me about their playing is the magnitude of their energy, dedication, and innovation. You can see it through how they move, as a unit and with freedom. One of the ways they break tradition is by standing in concerts—in rehearsals, too, as my poor legs were about to find out. Walking into their rehearsal space in JP for the first time on Monday was surreal because the faces I saw were faces I already knew. (I kept it cool, though.) On the menu for Friday were a variety of works that are connected in some way to the Catalonian cello legend, Pablo Casals. There was the Schumann Cello Concerto, which he famously recorded, played by Casals’ own godson, Lluís Claret. Several pieces on the concert were composed and championed by Casals. The finale of the evening was the devilish Glosses by Ginastera, which overlaid Catalonian grooves with hair-raising, imaginative sound effects.

What began as a creative theme tying together a concert program became something much more relevant following Tuesday’s election. Pablo Casals was famous for using his music to speak out for justice. At one point he refused to perform in public as a statement of his fierce opposition to the rule of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. Our relationship with Casals would soon become more relevant than any of us could have predicted, and “music as a voice for justice” is a phrase that would echo through my mind for the rest of the week.

Monday was quite normal. We rehearsed all day in their cozy JP space located next-door to a shop that was so fond of incense that I could often smell it during rehearsals. The Criers, as they’re called, happily greeted each other in the early morning with coffee and tea in hand. A variety of stands were assembled amidst casual talk and laughter, and some sheet music was passed around. I noticed immediately how many of them took the time to welcome me. There was a lot more smiling than I expected. It couldn’t be more obvious: this was a community.

It turns out, it was a community made up of very cool people. There really isn’t another word for it. Everything from their Crier slang to how they played their instruments was just…cool. Playing with them involved lots of classical music head banging and jowl shaking. It was like being caught in an ocean wave. All I had to do to fit in was let myself get swept up in it all. Through the week I started picking up on little Crier colloquialisms. Instead of saying, “let’s run it,” when they wanted to play a piece from start to finish, they often said, “let’s lay it down.” “Open up the floor,” meant anyone in the ensemble could request specific spots to improve. They liked to endearingly call each other “chefs”, which alluded to everyone’s own imagined recipe for making a piece successful.

On Tuesday, November 8, we rehearsed as normal, although with a palpable buzz in the air that mirrored the whole country. We were nervous about Election Day, but busy enough to not notice too much. It was Wednesday that changed everything.

The morning after the election was surreal. I walked into the rehearsal space and no one smiled. Hardly anyone spoke, and when they did, it was with a kind of heaviness. I had trouble concentrating. What good was a little rehearsal when there were whole communities of people across the country now fearful of discrimination, deportation, and hate crimes? We assembled into our proper places. Lluís wanted to do a run through of Schumann Cello Concerto. We tuned, and no one talked, and we waited to start the piece. It took a while for the first violin to give us the cue because he was holding back tears. It might have been that moment when I understood how deeply this day would affect us. When it was time, he motioned his violin upwards in the tempo of the opening and the music began. I will never forget what happened next.

This wasn’t the first time we had played the concerto, but it was the only time it would feel like this. Lluís sang with his cello above the undulating harmonies of the opening. It felt as if something were compressing my chest. It hurt and the music seemed to understand that. Every change in harmony, every sorrowful slide in the cello, every exclamation—it all seemed so relevant. We were playing our grievances. And then, about half way through, the change began. The music started giving back to us. As we passed through the achingly beautiful second movement and angst-filled third movement, I could feel the grip that was clenching my insides begin to loosen. Hearing the pain in the music and expressing it with my own hands was therapeutic, like every stroke of my bow was somehow erasing a piece of that darkness. I felt as though I was being healed.

By the time we finished running the concerto I felt like an entirely different person. I was hopeful, grateful, humbled. Suddenly, it was easy to believe that everything was going to be all right. Anything that was going to come our way, we could take it. It was like our instruments had sucked up the sorrow straight through our fingers. It took me a few days to realize this, but I had never had an experience like this with music before in my life. Until then, I had never known what it felt like to need relief so badly and to be given it so viscerally by music.

It was from that moment on that A Far Cry carried on with different purpose. Our rehearsals weren’t just about making good quality music, they were about making our voices heard. We had something truly relevant to say now. As the concert date approached there were dramatic increases of hate crimes reported. Some of my own friends, minorities and women, were targets of verbal harassment on the streets by supporters of the winning candidate. So we practiced harder.

On Friday, we played a concert with different significance than any concert I had ever played up until that point. I remember walking out onto that stage and feeling like we had an extremely important job to do. The audience, too, was listening to us differently. I realized that we weren’t just a voice for us, but a voice for the people who came to see us. As we played that night, I remember being consciously aware at every moment that someone different from me was listening. Someone of a different race, a different religion, a different gender, different life experiences. And yet we were all listening to the same music. The concert went well, but perfection was not the number one priority that night. That night we were healers. We were orators. We were unifiers. We were exactly what so many of us needed.

I learned some important lessons during my not so normal week with A Far Cry. I learned that amidst times of uncertainty and anger there will be times of joy and purpose and togetherness. I was reminded again of the power of artistic voices in society. Our role in Boston that week became so much more than just entertainment because we had something to say and everything to give. I was reminded of how thankful I am to be a musician and how lucky we are to have music as a means of expression. We were able to provide our audience with something beautiful in a week filled with ugliness. Knowing that gives me purpose. My week with A Far Cry was exhilarating, painful, and unimaginably meaningful. I got to play music with genuinely good people and innovative artists. And through it all I was reminded that we all have music as a voice for justice, and we should use it to make something beautiful when people need it the most. 

On Casals and us

An introduction to tonight's program, from its curator Michael Unterman. Enjoy! 

This is not the first time we have played a concert that owes a debt to Pau Casals. When we play the music of Bach, or any of the works for cello or orchestra he recorded, his interpretations are felt, whether directly or indirectly. We also think of Casals when we think of Spain, of Catalunya, as one of the great heroes of that country and region. He left an indelible mark on the musical history of New England as well, through his 13 summers at the Marlboro Festival, teaching many of the musicians we admire today and with whom we have studied. Finally, he is there in our minds when we think of social justice and the struggle for peace as one of the great, principled, humanist statesmen. It would be difficult to plan a program that didn’t relate to Casals in some way: he is a giant.

Then again, this program in particular owes near everything to him, with all the pieces being either the subject of his recordings (as cellist and conductor), his own compositions and arrangements, and the Ginastera, which is dedicated to him. The Brandenburg Concerto that opens is a nod to his lifelong championing of Bach’s music, most notably of the Suites for Solo Cello, but also his interpretations of Bach’s orchestral works which he recorded twice. Our performance will be based on these recordings, to be played in more of an “old school” style, rather than our usual practice of borrowing elements from historically informed practices; most notably that means using a grand piano for continuo, rather than a harpsichord.

The next set of works for cello and orchestra features pieces that are the subject of celebrated Casals recordings. First, his arrangement of “El cant dels ocells” (“The Song of the Birds”), a Catalan folksong that, through Casals performances, became known as a song of protest against the Franco regime, of solidarity with the oppressed Catalan people, and as a plea for peace. Then, rounding out the first half, Schumann’s Cello Concerto. For these two works, we are honored to be joined by Lluis Claret, a cellist whom we adore, and also one who shares a deep family connection to Pau Casals, who was his godfather, and studied music with Pau’s brother, Enric.

The second half celebrates Casals the composer. First through his “Sardana de l’exili,” Sant Martí del Canigó, one of his many compositions, little known outside Spain; then in Ginastera’s brilliant Glosses sobre temes de Pau Casals, a work dedicated to Casals on his centenary. And now, this year, we also celebrate Ginastera’s 100th.