A concert Feb. 14 at the Society for the Four Arts in Palm Beach has multiple drawing points: A visit by one of the top young classical ensembles in the country, one of the nation’s finest pianists, and a new concerto by its most prominent modernist composer.
Philip Glass’s Piano Concerto No. 3, which is composed for piano and string orchestra, got its world premiere in Boston last September by the pianist for whom it was written, Simone Dinnerstein, accompanied by A Far Cry, an 18-member conductorless string orchestra founded in 2007.
In addition to the Glass concerto, Dinnerstein will be heard in one of the Bach keyboard concerti (in G minor, BWV 1058); also on the program is Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto and Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives (Op. 22), a cycle of short piano pieces here arranged for string orchestra by the Russian violist and conductor Rudolf Barshai.
Handling the concertmaster’s position for the Glass will be violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud, a graduate of Harvard and the Yale School of Music who now teaches at Dartmouth. She joined A Far Cry in 2009, two years after its founding, and also performs as a member of the New York-based Solera Quartet.
Cloud describes the concerto, written as an hommage to the Estonian master Arvo Pärt as well as for Dinnerstein, as evocative at times of Pärt, Fauré and rock balladry along with its recognizably Glassian style. But perhaps its most distinguishing quality is its intimacy.
“The first movement has a real romantic soul in places … we discussed how it was so clearly a piece written for Simone,” she said. “It’s not like a really bombastic, hugely rhythmic, all moments of ecstasy kind of piece. It’s very subtle, and lyrical, and contemplative, and personal, which are all words I would use to describe things that she brings to her playing a lot of the time.
“It also feels very organic … and I feel one of the magical things about Simone’s playing is that she makes Bach, which can sometimes feel … cumbersome, and difficult to play, with fluidity and an organic quality. And she does that so beautifully, and you just never know how hard it is,” Cloud said.
The music of Glass’s concerto connects with that aspect of Dinnerstein’s art, but that’s not to say the piece is uniformly that way, Cloud said, particularly in the second movement. Fittingly for the composer of such monumental operas as Einstein on the Beach and Saytagraha, “there are some epic moments in this piece, but in general it tends to be on the more poetic, personal, intimate side,” she said.
A Far Cry, whose members are known as “Criers,” began among a group of string-playing music students in Boston – a city with a great many of them – who wanted to play together and formed an ensemble in 2007 to do just that. They now perform about 30 concerts a year, and boast an omnivorous repertoire. They’ve been critical darlings almost since their debut, and in 2014, founded a record label on which its first two records were nominated for a Grammy award.
“In general, it’s anything that we’re passionate about playing. It’s funny; we’ve been written about in the press as either a ‘new music group’ or an ‘early music group,’ and we’re really neither of those,” she said. “We’re passionate about commissioning and playing new music; that’s been a big part of our ethos since the beginning … there aren’t that many string orchestra pieces, and you need to add to the repertoire.”
But Boston has a very prominent early-music scene, and several of the Criers are hard-core historical performance musicians, Cloud said, adding that she thinks the flavor of their approach is reflected in the orchestra’s overall sound. It’s also inspired some creative programming, such as one Pablo Casals-themed concert in which the Criers played a Bach Brandenburg concerto in the Casals style of the early 20th century, which was hyper-romantic and full of string vibrato, completely unlike the standard scholarship-informed style we hear today
“We play everything from arrangements of ancient and medieval manuscripts to Daft Punk,” she said, referring to the French electronic music duo. “Really the full gamut. All of us are primarily classical players, but there are fiddlers in the group, there is some jazz knowledge … Lately, we’ve become more and more interested and fascinated with learning from other musicians from other traditions. For our 10th anniversary season-ender last year we did a collaboration with the Silk Road Ensemble” — cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s world music group — “We spent the whole week before the concert just learning from them and being exposed to all the expertise and mastery that they bring to all their different disciplines.”
Still, there’s a limit.
“To say that we play everything is not true. We don’t play anything that we don’t feel like we could be convincing on. Sometimes that means something we don’t really love. The three or four times we’ve done that in the past 11 years, we’ve learned our lesson,” said Cloud, 35, who hails from the Washington, D.C., suburbs in Northern Virginia.
Because the group has no conductor, and with 18 players is something akin to a superannuated string quartet, communication between the musicians is critical. And A Far Cry has established a number of practices that make it worthy of business case studies, or experiments in group dynamics.
To put these concerts together, the members of the group rotate in leadership roles, five at a time, and manage the overall interpretation and repertoire for that event. Cloud says it helps prevent burnout by not leaving the same people in charge all the time, and relieves frustration from people who might otherwise always be in a supporting role and feel their ideas weren’t being appreciated.
But people being people, tensions are inevitable, even in an ensemble as tight-knit and familial as this one. Early on, the group had a strict rules about how many comments were allowed per piece (usually only two), and there also were musicians appointed as Timekeeper, who set an alarm and called out “Time’s up,” for various rehearsal activities, and another appointed to be the Spanker.
“And their entire job was to impartially enforce the rules. So if someone said, ‘I know there’s been two comments, but I just wanted to say…’ and the Spanker yelled, ‘Spank!’ And if someone was grandstanding and talking too long, the Spanker would yell ‘Spank!’ … We picked something that was a little funny so it would cut the tension, but there were times when ‘Spank!’ was said through gritted teeth,” Cloud said.
Another tension-cutting device was declared in a particularly tense rehearsal when one of the players suggested that any comments made after that had to be made in a funny accent. “And we had all these people who were slightly pissed off at each other making impassioned pleas in ridiculous accents,” she said. “It managed to put everyone back in a vulnerable position and lighten the mood a little bit and get us back focused on what we needed to be focused on.”
But most of the time, it’s a collegial process. Instrumental ensemble is gained and polished through the use of techniques such as group singing or mass counting out of the beats. Another important element is called Spots, in which the players compile a list of tricky spots in the music that they’d like to go over again, and then do those for an hour to 75 minutes, Cloud said.
With the group’s personnel largely stable since its founding, being a Crier is more than just being a member of an orchestra of fellow string players.
“At this point, 11 years in, we have really deep artistic and often personal relationships with one another,” she said. “We’ve been in it together for a long time. I like to joke sometimes that we’re like — not that I’ve ever climbed Everest or anything — a mountain-climbing team in that we’re all strung together, and the point is getting up the mountain. It’s not about anyone being a hero.
“And if we don’t all make it up the mountain, it’s not a victory.”
Simone Dinnerstein and A Far Cry perform at 7:30 pm Wednesday, Feb. 14, at the Society of the Four Arts, Palm Beach. Tickets are $40-$45 for nonmembers. Call 561-655-7226 or visit fourarts.org.