Are conductors really necessary? They’re rather expensive to feed, after all, and while they can be useful for holding large orchestras together, some smaller groups might be better off just jettisoning them entirely. That, at any rate, was the takeaway from a lively and impressively precise performance Sunday night at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown by A Far Cry, a young, Boston-based string orchestra whose 17 members call themselves a “collective” and take a democratic, guaranteed conductor-free approach to chamber music.
The group’s sense of freedom and enthusiasm was tangible in the opening work, the vivid “Battaglia” by Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber. It’s a series of musical scenes meant to evoke wartime, and Biber lets his imagination loose, instructing the players to engage in all sorts of “extended techniques” — even sticking paper between the strings to produce a snare-drum effect. The wildest moments come in a short-but-sour movement, in which each of the musicians plays in a different key — think Charles Ives, with a 17th-century touch. The Criers brought the whole thing off with spirit and engaging wit.
But the group’s unusual take on Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 95 revealed some of the hazards of the leaderless approach. The Criers transcribed the work for string orchestra — quadrupling each of the parts, more or less — and though they handled the technical challenges well enough, it was never clear that adding more mass to the quartet really added to its power. The thing is all muscle and bone as it is; adding flesh only seemed to soften the edges and blur the details, where much of the interest lies. Despite fine ensemble work, you end up with the impression not of a riveting conversation among four individuals but, rather, almost of music by committee.
Osvaldo Golijov wrote that he wanted his “Tenebrae” to sound “as an orbiting spaceship that never touches ground.” It does. This is music that floats in a netherworld of mist and shadow — it has the strange enchantment of falling into a dream — and the Criers’ collective approach produced a gorgeous, radiant reading. But it was in the much more complex “Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge,” by Benjamin Britten, that the ensemble showed just how skillfully they can navigate without a conductor. This was a superb, perfectly calibrated performance, full of subtle nuances and real power. Conductors, watch out: The collective approach works.