I must confess that I’ve been putting off writing this review, and it’s not just because finals are right around the corner. On Wednesday night, UMS was fortunate to host two of the country’s finest chamber ensembles: self-conducted, 18-piece string orchestra A Far Cry, and Grammy-winning vocal octet Roomful of Teeth. The performance was so stunning that I’ve had a hard time putting it into words until now. Here goes.
At the opening of the concert, I was struck by how A Far Cry played the arrangement of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives, Op. 22 as if they were engaging in a group discourse. The performers (minus the cellists) all stood together, moving freely with the music and communicating fully with their bodies. They played so convincingly that the audience was moved to laughter after some of the more light-hearted movements. Although there were only string players onstage, A Far Cry exploited the timbral possibilities of their instruments so expertly that there were instances where I could have sworn that I heard a piccolo or a trumpet.
Roomful of Teeth came out next, having adopted composer and tenor Ted Hearne for the evening in order to perform excerpts from his song cycle, Coloring Book, which set texts by Black American writers. The piece embodied the diversity it celebrated in the myriad of stylistic approaches it used, and Roomful of Teeth demonstrated their skill in numerous singing styles as they effortlessly switched between warm, hymn-like lyricism and grittier, groovier textures. The performance of the piece brought me to a profound place of empathy, and I was reminded of the reason why I enjoy going to concerts in the first place.
The second half was again opened by A Far Cry, this time playing experts from Ted Hearne’s Law of Mosaics––a piece that I had heard for the first time just a few days prior to the concert and had been itching to hear live. Even though I had heard the piece before, I still wasn’t prepared for the singularly powerful event that took place. The piece is a true sonic mosaic if there ever was one: as soon as appreciators of nearly any genre of music, be it classical, contemporary, or club music are able to catch a glimmer of their favorite music, the piece has already moved on to the next thing. It was certainly one of the more exciting pieces of the evening.
Roomful of Teeth joined A Far Cry for the final two pieces of the concert: an arrangement of Josquin des Prez’ Nymphes des bois/Las deploration sur la mort de Johannes Ockeghem, and Caroline Shaw’s Music in Common Time. Shaw’s arrangement of the des Prez, a 500-year-old work, had such dense, powerful polyphony that it seemed as if Rackham auditorium had suddenly transformed into a cathedral. Shaw’s piece, just three years old, was powerful in a very different sense. A profound sense of togetherness pulsated throughout the hall: the music was simultaneously complex yet approachable, simple yet mesmerizing, virtuosic, yet easy to connect to. You didn’t know what beautiful sound was going to come next, but you were more than willing to discover the unexpected as Shaw’s music gently guided the audience to the next moment.
This concert was definitely one of my favorite UMS performances this season. It was incredible to witness such a high level of musicking by performers who clearly loved what they were doing. There were many bodies onstage, yet they breathed and created music together as one organism. I spoke with a handful of the performers after the show, and was delighted to find that they are every bit as kind and intentional as their music-making suggests. I’ll be anxiously awaiting the next opportunity where I can listen to either group again.