WHRB Classical Interviews A Far Cry

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Photo Credit: Yoon S. Byun

Now in its eleventh season, the Boston-based conductorless chamber orchestra A Far Cry continues to deliver its unique blend of innovative programming, self-driven energy, and sheer passion for music. WHRB Classical recently had the chance to speak with Sarah Darling ‘02, Miki-Sophia Cloud ‘04, and Alex Fortes ‘07. Over the course of our conversation we touched on a variety of themes, including their musical backgrounds, their thoughts on what sets A Far Cry apart from other groups, and their experiences as serious musicians at a liberal arts school. Listen to the entire interview above, and read on for a sneak preview!

On A Far Cry and its similarities to the Brattle Street Chamber Players, a student music group at Harvard that all three performed in:

SD: How did it prepare for A Far Cry? I’ll just say one thing. Both groups rely very very heavily on the ability of a group of like minded individuals to rehearse with each other, which means give feedback to each other, which means get in each others heads, ride the same wave of passion, figure out the same tenets for intonation, and the only way you learn how to rehearse with a group of people is to do it a lot. And so I would say that all of a three of us started really early, through these years at Harvard, learning what it would mean to be in a room with, it was thirteen players at this point, the initial Tricky Thirteen, and you realize, ‘Oh this is not necessarily going to be smooth, I’m going to have to take the time to learn about each of these thirteen people. And that’s just a process that you can’t speed up.’

MSC: I think that one thing that is in common between the groups, one of many, is the idea that the group is only defined by who’s in it at the time. I could see even from my first year in Brattle to the last, it evolved, and now it’s really exciting to see that the group is still thriving and going, but it has a very different shape now, than when it did, or so I hear from talking to the members, from when I was in it, and that’s really wonderful. I think the one difference is that now that A Far Cry’s been around, we’re going on our eleventh season, I feel that in the past few years, some things have started to seep out of the individuals into a broader culture that even when some individuals aren’t there, they remain. I think that’s something that I couldn’t always find in Brattle because there’s always a turnover every year of new people, but when you have the same people for ten plus years then you start to kind of...it’s interesting we sometimes had members that, after 8 years in the group, for a personal or family reason need to move to another city and they need to leave the group as a full time member, and yet years later we’re still referring to whatever thing they suggested as the ‘Ashley’ rehearsal technique or ‘can we move this harmony in a Frank kind of way’, and that’s still a part of our culture even if the individual isn’t there.

AF: One thing in my time in Brattle that was interesting was that it was very personality driven. I think that one thing that’s in common in both groups is there’s an effort to expand what’s possible programming-wise, in terms of string orchestra rep, which when you first look at is a very limited set of string serenades. I think that one thing that is actually quite different that I found in various groups that have these horizontal structures is that A Far Cry has dealt with negotiating all the different needs of members in and out of the rehearsal process in a particularly parliamentary or bureaucratic way, and I don’t mean that as a bad thing. That goes to what Miki was talking about in that there’s this institutional culture that tends to be very much about finding policies within rehearsals - there’s almost a rules of order that we all submit to, in a way that’s actually quite unusual, that was built probably due to the people that were in the group at the beginning, and continues to the present. That’s one thing that’s striking about A Far Cry when you think ‘Oh, it’s completely democratic,’ but no, there’s this very, almost rigid structure that allows the democracy to work. And that’s unique to A Far Cry.

On making mistakes:

MSC: We’ve had to figure things out a lot through trial and error, emphasis on the error. One thing I love about this group is that I think there’s a nice combination of, I say realists to pessimists, which tend to be maybe my group I fall into, and really incredible optimists, and there’s this lovely balance, that when we fall on our face, which happens, and has happened many times over the past 11 years and will continue to happen, there’s this great optimism of brushing ourselves off and learning and continuing to go, which I think is really fabulous. What’s wonderful about that is then you learn, and you hone your craft, whether it’s an artistic craft, a technical craft, or the craft of working together as a group of people, which is perhaps the most difficult craft of all.

On commissions:

AF: I think that commissions have been a big part of our group identity for a long time, and there are several different commissions processes that we’ve used, so for those specific commissions, I think we can talk about - I think Miki was very involved for Elena [Ruehr]’s commission so she can talk about that. In general, every single person in the group can propose a program and take it wherever they want it to go, and so a lot of our commissions come from a member of the group saying, “I want to play a program that’s about”, let’s say, Migration, for example, “and I think this piece by this composer would be a perfect fit”. Last year we commissioned a piece from a former Bach Soc conductor, Lembit Beecher, called The Conference of the Birds, which was based on this Persian folk tale from the 12th century - a persian epic poem - about birds that were trying to find their leader, and end up struggling to find it and ending up with this very Aesop’s fable-y staring at a lake and finding that they are their own leaders. It fit our group and was a good celebration of our tenth anniversary, but that was part of a program that was about leadership and failures of leadership. Many years ago we were able to commission Caroline Shaw, who is a friend of many people in the group, to write a piece for us plus Roomful of Teeth, that was able to anticipate her becoming - I think it premiered a month after she won her Pulitzer, which was really good for the group.

MSC: I love being part of the commissioning process, and to borrow the saying of one of the producers we worked with on the opera Crossing - we just did a Matt Aucoin opera, another Harvard alum - we like being new music doulas, as she said which I thought was great, and the idea that of course we’re not actually birthing the piece, that’s the composer, but sometimes composers can really benefit from having performers who are really dedicated to workshopping the work with them, or talking through ideas and I really enjoy that process, and have through a lot of pieces the group has commissioned.

SD: I guess we’re waiting to find out about the Philip Glass commission. So here’s how it happened. We were working with Simone Dinnerstein, who graciously and wonderfully agreed to do a project with us a couple years ago based on the Goldberg Variations. We had a great time together! She actually came back to us and said ‘Philip Glass is writing me a concerto, let’s do it together’, and we said ‘Yes please and thank you’ and we’re totally totally thrilled.

On A Far Cry’s “secret sauce”:

SD: My personal secret sauce is that I love listening to music and I think it’s really great, and I think other people will probably enjoy it too. I just try to be constantly informed by that belief, and when I find something about a particular piece of music that I think is really great, I’ll tell everybody that I can that they should listen to it, and also here’s this really great thing about it. For me, it’s literally that simple. This stuff is right out there and you can spend your life luxuriating in it, so why wouldn’t you want to do that?

MSC: For me, I found it really liberating and freeing when I joined A Far Cry, because I think there’s this sense that in our field there have to be all these alienating and rarified channels through which you get to all those goodies Sarah was talking about. It’s like when you go to the bank and you’re in the drive-through and you have to go through that tube, and when you’re a kid you get that lollipop through that tube that goes through the ground. It seems like such a hassle when you can just walk right up and there it all is. There’s an ethos in A Far Cry where we try really hard, and we’re pretty self-critical about trying not to do things for a gimmick’s sake, and not to do something just to get audience or to just dispel some myth about classical music, but we try to get to the marrow of the bone. We try to get to what it’s all about, and remove whatever bizarre impediments have been put in place. For many years, whenever we had a review, it was like ‘Wow they’re standing up, is this a gimmick, oh it’s such a visually striking thing!’ It really came down to, the first rehearsal I wasn’t there but i heard that folks started sitting down and like ‘Oh this feels really strange’ ‘Oh this doesn’t feel very natural since we’re playing without a conductor, should we just try standing up?’ ‘Oh yeah, let’s! This feels really great!’ ‘Ok great!’

It wasn’t like ‘Let’s blow up apart the traditional model and make a name for ourselves!’ It wasn’t like that at all. It was like ‘This feels more authentic.’ Authenticity, and the pursuit of authenticity, because it’s not an easy thing to attain, is a big part of the group’s ethos.

Henry Shreffler is a DJ for WHRB Classical. You can hear classical music on WHRB on Mondays - Fridays 1pm - 10 pm, Saturdays 1pm - 9pm, and Sundays 2pm - midnight.