By Keith Powers
BOSTON — The string ensemble A Far Cry is hot. Crazy hot. A string of commissions this fall, performed at home and on tour along the east coast and beyond, is starting the Criers’ second decade off at a hectic pace.
In September, the Criers premiered Philip Glass’s third piano concerto with soloist Simone Dinnerstein. Coming in November, they ambitiously unveil The Blue Hour, a multi-part setting of Carolyn Forché’s poem featuring five composers, with vocalist Luciana Souza. In between, with three performances in the Boston area in October, the group performed the world premiere of Elena Ruehr’s Piano Concerto, part of a program entitled Music in Migration. Heng-Jin Park was the soloist.
The conductor-less Criers follow the inspiration of different group members in creating their programs. These concerts — I heard the one Oct. 21 at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain — were conceived by violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud and included Telemann’s suite Les Nations, the bracing Tenth Symphony of Mieczysław Weinberg, and the Ruehr premiere.
Each work contributed thematically to the Music in Migration concept, but in very different ways. The centerpiece musically was Ruehr’s concerto, a 20-minute work with multiple moods, but framed as one movement. Ruehr’s past compositions have frequently taken literary inspiration, with operas, songs, and instrumental work being set in motion by novelists like Madison Smartt Bell and Margaret Atwood, or poets like Adrienne Rich and Louise Glück.
This concerto’s narrative comes from the life of Heng-Jin Park herself. Born in Korea, she came to the United States with her mother, under duress after the death of her father. Ruehr paints her journey musically, evoking Korean folk music and opera, moving on through piano exercises, and then tip-toeing through allusions to Park’s personal touchstones as a mature musician: Bach, Chopin, Brahms.
Apart from the easily recognizable Korean influences, the bulk of the musical references are blended into Ruehr’s own language. A new language, for the composer. Her work has often been characterized by approachable, accessible surfaces, which she layered over complex rhythmic structures – frequently stylized dance ideas.
Here, Ruehr engages in a bolder, more interactive approach. The opening moments gently recall Park’s Korean past. Notably, the Pansori tradition – pairing a vocalist with a drummer – is evoked, with Park as the vocalist, and pizzicato strings as the percussionist. This opening effectively follows the personal, thematic narrative, but stands starkly apart from the ensuing musical ideas.
More than a dozen different moods follow in succession. Piano arpeggios end up in a pizzicato climax. Cloud, as concertmaster for this work, picks up a chordal progression from the piano and spins it into an elegant, legato line. Park’s trilling sets off another gambit – a probing line from the first violins. A six-note, falling and rising phrase recurs, sometimes with a jazz rhythm underpinning it.
A dramatic, new structure emerges midway through: the strings drone, then surge, as the the pianist carves out chords. The entire ensemble and the soloist burst into a 32nd-note frenzy, which accelerates to a full stop. A lyric line in the violins causes the soloist to respond, and the six-note phrase returns again, in an altered guise. The percussive, pizzicato drive then returns, barreling toward the conclusion.
The bulk of the concerto has a heightened complexity, virtuosically explored both by soloist and ensemble. There aren’t many introspective or reserved moments, but the work remains tuneful, organically interactive. Like most successful premieres, it feels like the work that it is – not a sketch for a larger work, or a piece for a different instrumentation. As a one-movement, challenging piece that explores musical roots by re-inventing them, Ruehr’s first piano concerto seems headed for an active performance life, apart from this particular thematic context.
The theme – music in migration – got a diverse exploration. Telemann’s Les Nations suite creates a musical travelogue: after an overture and a clever minuet, musical side trips are taken to Turkey, Switzerland, Russia, and Portugal.
The premise is tried and true, but this execution was alert and bracing. The minuet, written ABA, with a unison middle section full of delight, showed off the Criers’ seamless sound. The grand tour ends with two movements in a curiously unfair foot-race – first “Les Boiteux” (The Lame), followed by “Les Coureurs” (The Runners) – the depictions characterized deftly.
Mieczysław Weinberg, contemporary and friend of Shostakovich, led an unrelentingly oppressed life as a persecuted Jew in Poland, then an exile from his native land, and later as victim of Stalin during the worst of the dictator’s regime. His life was one of suffering and turmoil, but his prolific and under-performed musical output is finding more and more appreciators. The pianist Marc-André Hamelin has explored multiple sonatas in recent recitals.
Weinberg’s Tenth Symphony (he wrote two dozen) was written in 1968. Breathtaking in scope, invention, and texture, the Tenth has extended solos for cello (Rafael Popper-Keizer), double bass (Karl Doty) and viola (Caitlin Lynch), and several especially coruscating solos for concertmaster Robyn Bollinger.
It has five marked movements, but many shifting ideas. Several themes recur, but it’s the texture and treatment of the themes that create the work’s power.
A darkly contrapuntal “Burlesca” stood out. Strong uniformity of sound often defines string ensembles, and the opening movement’s unison attack did just that. But the multi-part invention of the “Burlesca” showed a musical acumen built on a decade of collaboration, still enthusiastically pursued.
Keith Powers covers music and the arts for GateHouse Media and WBUR’s ARTery. Follow @PowersKeith; email to email@example.com