Michelle M. Li

The group was A Far Cry, in name and from expectations.

On Tuesday, three-time Grammy-nominated and self-conducted chamber orchestra A Far Cry presented “Gravity,” an exploration of human perspectives of Earth and space from the confines of Morse Recital Hall. The string orchestra  was formed in 2007, and functions as a democratic organization, rotating leadership among its players, known as Criers.

Through a program of five pieces, four of which were written after the 1969 moon landing, the group aimed to communicate that, in the words of Crier Alex Fortes during his pre-concert speech, “space isn’t just about the peace of the pale blue dot. It’s in fact a very violent place itself.” The first half of the program would focus on Earth as understood from space; the second, on the pale blue dot itself.

Overwhelming stillness. The air suspended itself in the room as the Criers breathed together — a moving musical mass — and drew their bows across strings, placing us into the ethereal sound world of Arvo Pärt’s “Silouan’s Song.” The piece, named for the monk St. Silouan, combines religious sacred music and the ringing sounds of bells and makes us all feel small, like looking down at Earth from galaxies away.

Extended silence followed moments of slow musical movement, a curtain lifted and placed down again with deliberate pause. It was taunting, in a way, filled with childlike wonder and the caution of age.

Spinning out of control. The second piece, Iannis Xenakis’s “Aroura,” was confusing and chaotic, elemental and at times stressful and painful. If the concert is to be read as the human trajectory from space to Earth, “Aroura” was Apollo 13, incalculable and consuming. Spatters of extended techniques — including harmonic glissandi, col legno, pizzicato and ponticello — removed all semblance of order from the sound waves crashing into our ears. The scratching conjured images of anbengine in combustion, each Crier desperately doing their part to keep the craft on track.

When the cacophony cleared, what remained seemed all the more tranquil. The craft did indeed safely land with Aaron Jay Kernis’s “Musica Celestis,” translated from Latin to mean “heavenly music.” Aptly named, the sounds emanating from the Criers’ wooden boxes ring into the hall, simple and pure. It was beautiful in a traditional way, grounding the audience in the classical milieu with which the average listener is likely most familiar. Although it was included in the pre-intermission, “space”, part of the program, this piece felt definitely closer to Earth — it was  comfortable, less experimental, it filled the hall with a resounding, consistent sound. Gravitational, if you will.

After intermission, the “earthiest” piece in the program and the only piece written before the moon landing, Bartok’s “Divertimento for String Orchestra”. The first of three movements begins with a relentless pulsing: the musicians’ matching vibrato, bow speed and accents seemed to sway our seats back and forth to the beat of a folk song. The rhythmic motif throughout the movement underscored transitions between passages of syncopated dancing and pastoral lyricism spun through a quiet and lilting melody. The second movement, “Molto Adagio”, crept up the walls of the hall. It is almost inaudible at first, so we watch. We see the Criers’ minimal vibrato, glass-smooth bow changes, and little nods for cues. Perfectly placed trills intensify until they resemble a violent wind and bring the movement to a swirling transition into the third and final movement’s raucous dance. A violinist embellishes the rustic melody with light and tasteful slides, shining for a moment until the rest of the group overtakes him and finish the piece in thick, ringing triumph.

Nothing more fitting to the theme of dark outer space could have concluded the program than Osvaldo Golijov’s majestic “Tenebrae”, Latin for ‘darkness’. “Tenebrae” services in the Christian faith fall during Holy Week, which happens to be this week.It begins in a lit room and ends in darkness — except for one candle, representing hope. As A Far Cry performs Golijov’s “Tenebrae”, they communicate so clearly the duality between beauty and sorrow, light and dark. Low and rumbling bass notes fade in and out, as do high, soaring instrumental solos.

Fortes likened the ensemble to “a small parliament” of an “island nation” that represented Earth, capturing the smallness of Earth and the vastness of outer space which we are still uncovering little by little. We are reminded of our insignificance by the groundbreaking images of black holes released just six days before the concert. Knowing our place in the world, however tiny – that’s beautiful.

Throughout the concert, individual Criers visibly lean in when their part demands movement, playing into a group sound that’s unbelievably unified, moving and breathing as one. The original low, rumbling statement of the Tenebrae returns, decorated by a simple melody, to close the concert. The audience erupts in applause and, moved, stand up and continue applauding. We’re dizzy from still holding our breath.

A Far Cry last performed at Yale in collaboration with Roomful of Teeth in 2017.

Mackenzie Hawkins | mackenzie.hawkins@yale.edu.

Phoebe Liu | phoebe.liu@yale.edu.