Concert review: A Far Cry w/special guest Phyllis Chen (4/17/2014)

Meta-blog notes: I have pretty much been living in Crazy Town (Insaniville? Madbridge?) for the last month – as a result, not a lot of shows attended and even fewer blogs written. Life has stabilized but still involves a lot of overtime and extra doctor’s appointments, so I’m not sure when my output will pick up again. I do have tickets to a lot of great music events in May and June (Nick Cave, Marc Ribot’s birthday week of concerts, Joe Henry, another Deadly Gentlemen’s Ball, The Tempest featuring the music of Tom Waits, etc.) so there will definitely be some fun blogs even if I don’t cover as many smaller shows as I usually do.

I had such a busy week that I almost forgot that I had a ticket to this concert – luckily I did remember in time, even if I only got there five minutes before showtime! And even luckier, there was a single seat available in the front row right where I was hoping to sit, with a great view of the piano. A Schoenhut, because of course you have to have the best!


Yes, it’s a children’s toy piano. And yes, this was a serious classical concert. That’s just how we roll in contemporary music. Phyllis Chen, the only renowned toy pianist I’ve personally ever heard of, was a special guest and soloist – she performed three of her own pieces with A Far Cry, which is an 18-piece string ensemble based here in Boston. In addition to the toy piano, she played on a music box (which you can also see in the photo) and some electronics (according to the program, “a live electronic patch that loops samples of the music box and toy piano”).

The concert, held at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s new concert venue, had a theme: “Scenes from Childhood.” The pieces all had some connection to childhood – one piece was written by a 12-year-old, Chen’s pieces were all lullabies, and so on. (Also, someone sitting near me had brought an infant, which may or may not have been part of the theme; I’m still giving a thumbs-down on bringing babies to concerts regardless. Especially unamplified classical concerts where total silence is expected from the audience.)

The group performed pieces by five composers: in addition to Chen’s pieces, we heard Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question, Mendelssohn’s String Symphony #1 in in C Major, Ethan Wood’s Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman, and Ingram Marshall’s Evensongs. Ives was performed first, and it was a bit weird to listen to as they performed from the corners of the first balcony, two of which I couldn’t see because of the strange configuration of the room (it’s cube-shaped, and “in the round” except it’s square, with four seating levels of just 1-2 rows each). I couldn’t hear that well because I was sitting directly beneath the string ensemble (I think – I couldn’t actually see them). Can’t win ’em all.

The second piece, Mendelssohn’s string symphony, was a more traditional string ensemble piece, and I was in the perfect acoustic position for that one, which made me very happy. For all its quirks, the Gardner Museum’s venue has generally got beautiful sound, and this piece sounded fabulous – all the rich timbre came through, the subtlest vibrations were perfectly audible, and the soundstage was so precise I could have picked out each instrument with my eyes closed. I think I spent most of the piece just basking in all that. (Picture me doing that Homer Simpson drool thing: Mmmm, strings…)

Chen’s three lullabies were next (I think it was three movements in one piece called “Three Lullabies” but don’t quote me on that): Tell Me A Tale; The S(w)inging Automata; and Drawing Slumber. These were far and away my favorite pieces of the night. Delicate, magical, beautiful. I kept thinking it would be perfect for the soundtrack of a really beautiful film, maybe a slightly supernatural Victorian-era children’s story set in a lush British garden somewhere. I sneaked a recording of the second one, where she played the music box with a punched card strip she made:

The other two pieces were just as gorgeous. I loved all three. I wish my camera could do justice to the incredible acoustics, so you could appreciate that too.

Ethan Wood’s piece was up next, and seemed like the audience’s favorite of the night. Again I’m slightly unclear on this one, but I believe it was Wood’s composition, based on Mozart’s variations on Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman – which is a tune most of you would recognize as “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Sort of convoluted, but basically it sounded like a classical set of variations on “Twinkle.” Which is a cute and funny idea, and it was very well done overall – lots of variety and little audio jokes to amuse the audience. Everyone seemed to really enjoy it.

The final piece, after an intermission, was Ingram Marshall’s Evensongs. It was a longer piece, consisting of the string ensemble with the addition of electronics. I found myself once again thinking about what sort of movie this would be a soundtrack to, but this time I was trying to decide what sort of horror movie it would be in. I’m not 100% sure if it was meant to be creepy, but the recordings of a distant, distorted child’s voice and music-box samples definitely gave me a creepy vibe. Maybe the kind of horror movie where the main character is slowly going crazy. Or maybe that’s just the kind of week I was having… sometimes it’s difficult to hear a piece from an entirely objective point of view đŸ˜‰

This was the first time I’d heard any of these performers, and it was a very positive experience: I’ll be sure to check out A Far Cry’s performances in the future and I’ve put Phyllis Chen at the top of my list of modern composers that I near to hear more of.

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