A Far Cry Makes Diverse Music In Democratic Spirit

A Far Cry, the chamber orchestra based in Boston, perform a vast repertoire, from the 12th century to the present.  (Photo by Yoon S. Byun)
A Far Cry, a Boston-based  chamber orchestra, performs a vast repertoire, from the 12th century to the present.
(Photo by Yoon S. Byun)
By Adeline Sire

BOSTON – There’s a unique store front that sits bare on a busy street of Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston. The store doesn’t sell anything except the promise of great music performance.

The ensemble in concert at NEC's Jordan Hall.
The ensemble in concert at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.

That’s because this South Street spot is a rehearsal space for the up-and-coming chamber orchestra A Far Cry. A wooden sign with the group’s logo hangs above the shop window, flanked by a pub offering video games and karaoke nights, and a botánica shop running on Latino beats. That seems to fit the eclectic profile of the ensemble, which came to life in 2007, became chamber orchestra in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 2010, and made its first European tour last summer. On May 23, A Far Cry plays its last concert of the season at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall.   

Violinist and Far Cry co-founder Jae Young Cosmos Lee greets me in the rehearsal space with violist Sarah Darling. Lee wears a black T-shirt that reads “Criers Do It Standing Up,” a reference to the fact that the group’s 17 musicians, or “Criers,” play and rehearse on their feet. But what distinguishes them from other string ensembles is that they do not have a conductor and prefer to explore the limitless possibilities of music genres rather than specializing in just one.

Their curiosity for interesting repertoire spans nine centuries, from the bare beauty of works by 12th-century German musician Hildegard von Bingen to the exploratory sounds of brand new commissions. If there’s a piece they like that was not written for strings, they’ll just come up with an arrangement for their set-up. But it’s also their method for selecting and approaching music that is different and, clearly, what they are called.

Far Cry founding member Jae Young Cosmos Lee. (Adeline Sire)
Far Cry founding member Jae Young Cosmos Lee. (Adeline Sire)

The group was founded by New England Conservatory students who were somewhat string quartet-weary. They were looking for a more flexible set-up, and a non-traditional name. “We sat down for a couple of nights straight at my old apartment…to brainstorm,” says Lee. As they were looking for synonyms for the words “different” and “contrast,” the expression “a far cry” came up. They liked the idea of presenting themselves as radically set apart, or a far cry, from a traditional, cookie-cutter chamber orchestra. “It’s great because it’s like, a far cry from your normal Tropicana orange juice. This is Odwalla,” Lee says, referring to the smaller fruit juice company.

Members of A Far Cry may see themselves as the Odwalla of the classical string ensembles not just because of the name but because of the group effort it took to get that name. “That’s when the whole voting idea came into place,” Lee says. And herein lies the main ideal the group lives by: “Criers” seek consensus and vote on everything they do.

The end result is a terrific concert experience. After hearing the ensemble at Merkin Hall in New York three years ago, New York Times music critic James R. Oestreich called the musicians “spirited players” and wrote that the orchestra brims with personality or, better, personalities, many and varied.” That personality is what made violist Darling want to join the group after she heard them play “a mind-blowing concert” in their early days. She loved the energy of the ensemble. “The musicians had created this group wisdom that was incredibly appealing,” she says.

The storefront in Jamaica Plain where A Far Cry rehearses. (Sire)
The store in Jamaica Plain where A Far Cry rehearses. (Adeline Sire)

At a recent afternoon performance at the group’s home base concert venue of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, an enthusiastic audience was packing the place. The program, “Cries,” presented in collaboration with the vocal octet Roomful of Teeth, jumped from a 15th-century piece by Josquin Des Prez to a commission by Pulitzer-Prize winning musician Caroline Shaw, then headed back to the 19th century with Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden” for string orchestra. While this may seem like a wild menu selection, it’s pretty typical of what the group presents. Shaw’s piece “Music in Common Time,” was a captivating soundscape of vocal explorations on a D major chord.

The Josquin motet, “Nymphes des bois,” in this rendition with strings, was removed from its Renaissance habitat, but morphed with ethereal grace into a timeless and awe-inspiring sound opus. That is what A Far Cry does. By allowing themselves the freedom to give anything they play their own spin, they transcend period, style, and interpretation. And in concert, whether they are performing Renaissance or Romantic masters, what emanates from the group is bountiful energy and infectious enthusiasm for the music. 

Here is how this collaborative works: Since there is no conductor or artistic director, musicians rotate through the roles of concertmaster and principals, who make interpretive decisions. They are picked – you guessed – through a vote.  Criers can self-nominate, too, so the selection process can get tricky.

“That’s when it’s becomes like the U.S. Congress,” says Lee.

”Yes, there’s definitely wheeling and dealing,” said Darling, “but it’s part of the territory.”

“Part of democracy,” adds Lee. “But there could be 20 pieces that no one wants to even touch. Then we nominate each other!” he says, bursting out with laughter.  

Violinist Lee and violist Lee in the rehearsal space. (Sire)
Violinist Lee and violist Sarah Darling in the rehearsal space. (Sire)

Some of those democratic tenets were inspired by the New York-based Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, which was created in 1972.   Orpheus has never used a conductor and also rotates musical leadership. Also in New York, the orchestral collective The Knights, which precedes A Far Cry by a few years, is aiming to “transform the concert experience” by doing many collaborations and varying repertoire, just as Criers do, though with a much larger ensemble and a conductor.

With an average age of 32, A Far Cry  is part of a young generation of classical musicians who refuse to be pigeon-holed. They keep an open mind about what they play and how they play it. The group’s mission aims to expand “the boundaries of orchestral repertoire and experimenting with the ways music is prepared, performed, and experienced.”

To that end, they often collaborate with composers and guest artists. Earlier this year, they presented a bold program with the contemporary dance company Urbanity Dance, in which dancers interacted with musicians on stage to the music of Bach and Stravinsky.

Last month, they played their program, “Scenes from Childhood,” at the Gardner Museum’s Calderwood Hall there. It included a Mendelssohn symphony, a new piece for toy piano by composer Phyllis Chen, and a brilliant contemporary arrangement of Mozart’s variations on “Twinkle Twinkle” by composer and occasional Crier Ethan Wood. This was an outstanding piece of music that captured the spirit of the group well, part classical, part contemporary, fully imaginative, and daring.

When performing early music, which they often do, they’ll invite Baroque instrumentalists, such as harpsichordists or lutenists. Some Criers, like Darling, are fluent in period instrument practice; she plays Baroque violin with Boston Baroque and other ensembles. But many, like Lee, are not. “Sarah trained me,” he says, laughing. While Criers are mindful of style and use of vibrato, they do not change their tuning or bows for early music. Darling and some of her colleagues, though, make suggestions on phrasing and ornamentation when it comes to playing Purcell, Biber, or Geminiani. But she is careful to add that “there is no Baroque police” in A Far Cry.  As Darling says, “everybody in the group should feel welcome to bring their own soul to the music.”

A Far Cry is a chamber ensemble that appears to be going places. (Yoon S. Byun)
A Far Cry is a chamber ensemble that appears to be going places. (Yoon S. Byun)

So far, this 360-degree collaborative process seems to have not only endured but thrived. However, being a small organization means the musicians all have had to share administrative duties. But that’s about to change. “For me, the most exciting thing for us next season is that we are ready to hire an executive director,” says Lee. “That’s only going to help us further our vision in an efficient way.”

When A Far Cry returns to their alma mater for their final concert, they’ll perform a program entitled “Happily Ever After.”  Always seeking contrasts, the musicians will start gently with an arrangement of madrigals by the masterful Italian Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo and then head stridently into Bernard Herrmann’s unforgettable score for the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. Aaron Copland’s Suite from Appalachian Spring. followed by a suite of Finnish dance music will prop up this talented bunch of fiddlers to unleash their bold ideas and fearsome chops once again.

Adeline Sire is an arts journalist and radio producer specializing in music and culture, in the Boston area. She is a contributor to the quarterly magazine Early Music America and is a former producer for the BBC-PRI-WGBH international news program The World. Twitter: @AdelineSire