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Eclectic Mysticism in Pawling

Music review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Sat Nov 19th, 2016

A Far Cry

“Dreams and Prayers,” a program of exploratory mysticism played by Boston-based A Far Cry, was offered at Gardiner Theater at the Trinity-Pawling School.  A musical meditation on the Holy Spirit by Hildegaard von Bingen (1098-1179) opened the concert. This provided slow, tender music dwelling on the Holy Spirit. Here fire was depicted as glowing embers. According to Luke’s history, Acts of the Apostles, it was the descent of the Holy Spirit that created the Christian sect of Judaism with Peter as its leader before Paul’s eventual re-invention of this Judaic reform movement as a new religion. Bingen’s piece urged humble resourcefulness in faith.

Osvaldo Golijov’s “Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind” was a more ambitious piece of program music divided into three parts: the folkloric Jewish tradition in Armenia, Germany, and modern Israel. Renowned clarinetist David Krakauer joined the fourteen piece string ensemble for a contemporary piece by the Argentinean composer living in Boston. Golijov, a neighbor of this radically democratic ensemble which has no conductor or director (musicians wear whatever they wish, although I judged the men more properly attired) specially composed this piece for A Far Cry. Krakauer was adequate in this piece which sounded to me as wandering tragic lament concluding in despair, yet I thought the writing of the clarinet line so difficult I wondered if there was a clarinetist alive who might do it justice. Krakauer was thoroughly at home in the Yiddish klezmer-style section (an idiom I was more familiar with) and brought down the house with his full-tilt ecstasy, smooth tone, and rhythmic jilt. Golijov wove great humor, dramatic finesse, and see-saw agony and ecstasy into this movement. The third movement on modern Israel began in difficulty and ended with a questioning tone, yet what that question was remains open to varied speculation. Here strings, especially cellos, played more of a role. As a modern piece of composition this piece was both deeply emotional and intellectually sophisticated and I was grateful to be introduced to this composer that I did not know.   

Krakauer offered an encore in memory of his Russian grandparents who emigrated to the U.S. This piece of Russian Jewish folk music was a diamond rough and bold, melodic, explosive, a tour-de-force from the nineteenth century that Krakauer (depicted in teaser photo) was born to play. I venture no one else can match Krakauer here: he was superb! One felt present at a musical miracle. One felt pleasingly shocked. Sound, emotion, technique (much circular breathing), all blended into ecstatic trance in the recreation of a vanished world. I felt impoverishment from the loss.

The second half of the program opened with an Islamic, Turkish, Sufi piece by Mehmet Ali Sanikal (b. 1974). “Vecd” (ecstasy) punctuated repeated rhythmic phrases with varied ostinato rhythmic beats from 4 to 16 beats per measure. There was an improvisatory texture to this marvelous composition that in many ways reminded me of some elements in American jazz. While this meditative piece was only about ten minutes long and concluded with a mellow and calming rhythm, I wanted to hear much more.

Next they performed the third movement of Beethoven’s “String Quartet in A minor, Op.132.” The third movement of this late string quartet, subtitled “Holy Song of Thanksgiving by a Convalescent to the Transcendent Divinity in the Lydian Mode,” written after recovering from a stomach ailment, remains one of the great Romantic, autobiographical masterpieces of late Beethoven. The slow opening theme cyclically returns with unexpected variations and alterations to produce intoxicating serenity. This was aptly appropriate for the coming Thanksgiving holiday. Here Miki-Sophia Cloud excelled on first violin while Karen Ouzounian passionately excelled on cello with Loewi Lin on cello adding more forceful resonance in lower notes. Beethoven had dedicated the quartet (here arranged for fourteen strings) to a Russian cellist who had commissioned this quartet.

This serene Deistic conclusion of Thanksgiving for the three great religions affirmed plurality and diversity with generous impulse and appreciation. Thematic circularity with energetic variations combined with rhythmic virtuosity dominated this performance by A Far Cry, which was nominated for a 2015 Grammy Award for their album Dreams and Prayers