A Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra

A Far Cry rocks harder than your favorite band. But can they save classical music from itself?

By S.I. Rosenbaum | The Boston Phoenix | February 23, 2012

Night falls in Jamaica Plain. The drunks are flicking cigarettes on the sidewalk outside the Jeanie Johnston pub; on the corner, Santeria devotees are buying candles at the Botanica San Miguel. And in between, in a leased storefront, 17 classical musicians are losing their fucking minds to Haydn.

They call themselves A Far Cry, and they are absolutely shredding the cello concerto in C major, playing it like they've just invented this music five minutes ago. The youngest is 25, the oldest 36. They don't have a conductor. They play standing up, and they move as they play, in a way that has made more than one reviewer think of a flock of birds wheeling in the sky. Jesse Irons, on violin, is almost catching air on the high notes. Next to him, violinist Megumi Stohs Lewis is a slender whiplash of energy. When the cellist, Loewi Lin, loses an arpeggio, he screams.

Classical music is in a weird place. Over the past century, it's grown so crystallized and rarefied that people mostly think of it as either relaxing or good for you. This is bullshit; it's neither. The way A Far Cry plays it, a Beethoven fugue can make you want to thrash. A Schumann concerto can make you feel like you've watched something burn to the ground.

In the five years of the orchestra's existence, the Criers have gone from a handful of broke, determined kids to a nonprofit organization with a budget of just over $360,000, a residency at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and an upcoming European tour. On this day in January, they're rehearsing for a concert with Yo-Yo Ma, perhaps the only real household name in classical music - a man who has used his technical brilliance to write himself a ticket to play anything he wants, from Philip Glass to bluegrass.

That's what A Far Cry wants to do, too: to wrestle the music they love back from the cultural baggage it's accumulated.

"When we walk into Symphony Hall and we see everyone all dressed up, we have to learn how not to pay attention to that," says violist Sarah Darling. "We have to learn how to shut out all the ridiculous trappings that classical music has somehow acquired - and only pay attention to the sound itself."

It's not always easy to be that pure. The Criers struggle to contain the artistic visions and conflicting personalities of 17 wildly different individuals, struggle to make enough money to keep going, struggle to keep from sliding into the mediocrity they were fleeing in the first place.

But the payoff is worth it.

"If this works," Darling says, "it gives all of us the possibility to contribute something really meaningful to the musical macrocosm. And that's awesome."

***

Of course, there's one problem with an ensemble of musicians who all want to express their own musical visions: it's composed of musicians who all want to express their own musical visions.

And those visions can be very different. Just to take a random sampling: Darling, 32, who has long brown-and-silver hair and an unnervingly large personal collection of teas, moonlights as an early-music violinist. Lewis, 30, dabbles in fiddling, and has toured with Jethro Tull. Karl Doty, 26, the bassist, has his own Korean/bluegrass/folk mashup side project going on. Jae Young Cosmos Lee, 36, a violinist with diamonds sparkling in each earlobe, used to be a house DJ (he's also the main reason there's a no-sarcasm/eyerolling rule in rehearsals). And then there's Michael Unterman, 25, on cello, the newest Crier, who loves Radiohead and John Cage.

So there's negotiation. A lot of it.

"When I first joined, about a year and a half ago, I was really excited," says Unterman. "I remember saying, 'I feel like I've just joined the circus, this is going to be so much fun, I've just joined this awesome party.' ... And now it kind of feels more like I joined the US Senate."

They do everything by consensus, from choosing their repertoire to vetting new members. In rehearsal, it's the same. They rotate section leadership; while they're playing, only a section leader can call for a break. Then, after they say their piece, only one other person can speak before it's back to playing. Comments have to be specific and constructive.

Even with all that, working so closely can be a strain.

"This orchestra is like a really bratty, talented child I can't fuckin' stand," Lee says, "yet at the same time, I gotta take care of it."

He knows his role in the group is the contrarian, on the wrong side of every door. If the orchestra is playing Bach, Lee thinks they should be collaborating with Arcade Fire. If they're branching out into experimental music, he wants them to do an all-Mozart program.

But at the same time, he takes as much ownership in the orchestra as anyone: "As much as I can yell at your face, and ask you why the fuck are you such bullshit, if someone - let's say if orchestras were gangs, and another gang member came down the street and hit them over the top of the head, I would actually go there and hold down that gang member and beat the shit out of them."

And of course, disagreements get dropped when they get on stage.

"This is where the posturing ends," says Miki-Sophia Cloud, 29, a violinist. "In a concert, you need each other in a way you don't during rehearsal. The concert is where the argument ends."

***

Yo-Yo Ma arrives at the Gardner's brand-new Calderwood Hall, entourage in tow. As he walks in, followed by his cello-bearer, the Criers are trying to play it cool, but they're freaking out. "It's not fashionable among classical musicians to be big Yo-Yo Ma fans," Irons says later. "But you know how couples have, like, a celebrity list? Like, 'Okay, you can go sleep with Natalie Portman and it will be okay?'" Ma is on A Far Cry's celebrity list.

AFC has been the orchestra in residence at the Gardner Museum since 2009. Scott Nickrenz, the Gardner music director, adopted them "because I think they're fabulous," he says, but also because they were the perfect size for the jewel-box concert hall he was building - the one that they'll be inaugurating tonight.

Asked to describe the orchestra, Nickrenz hesitates. Then he says, "I remember seeing the Colla Marionette Company from Milan. They became almost a cult, the group, behind the scenes, making these wooden inanimate objects come to life. It wasn't just people who were very good at puppeteering; it was the way they created this ... magic. This group [A Far Cry] has a little of that about them, an aura. A sense that there's another dimension."

Ma doesn't bother to sit down as the orchestra starts playing; instead he walks around the hall, beaming at everyone, carrying his cello in one hand. He tickles Nickrenz's knees, peers up at the ceiling.

Then it's his cue, and he turns toward the orchestra and rips off those arpeggios, standing, resting the cello against his body, as casually and joyfully as he might turn to wave at an old friend.

This gives Nickrenz an idea. Because of the hall'sperfectly symmetrical acoustics and its in-the-round design, he tells the group, it doesn't matter whether Ma is facing out toward the audience or in toward the orchestra; the sound of his cello will be just as clear either way.

There are audible gasps of delight from the musicians.

And so that's how they perform that night, to an audience of glittering museum sponsors: in a circle, as equals, looking at each other, the way a string quartet plays when they're in private. The orchestra and Ma make their inanimate wooden instruments come to life; the slow movement unfolds infinitely, and then they take the daredevil last movement at breakneck speed - racing to the end, breathless, together.

Afterward in the green room, when a very fine whiskey is being passed around and everyone is still dazzled and Ma and Nickrenz toast the hall and the orchestra and then look at each other and lean in slowly and kiss each other tenderly on the mouth, some of the players wonder:

Did that all really just happen?

***

The Criers all came to Boston for the same reason: this is where the scene is. Right now, Boston is to classical what Seattle was to grunge - "a supersaturated solution of classical musicians," says Darling, the orchestra's only native Bostonian. Musicians come here because New England Conservatory is here, and they know there will be people to play chamber music with.

Chamber-music groups are the rock bands of classical music, but with two violins, a viola, and a cello instead of two guitars, a bass, and drums. Most musicians prefer playing this way when they can. Chamber groups allow musicians to engage directly with the music and each other, whereas traditional orchestras express the artistic vision of only one person - the conductor. This may be one reason why orchestra players report lower job satisfaction levels than prison guards.

But chamber groups have limits - orchestras just have more firepower. "I think the hunger is to take this intimate way of relating," says Darling, "and bust it out into this very powerful form of a group of people who can accomplish something significant in terms of what can radiate off the stage."

Chamber groups have something else in common with rock bands: they tend to implode, which most of the Criers have experienced firsthand. "We have a fake prerequisite to be in the group," says Lewis. "You have to be a member of a broken-up quartet." (Lewis's own broken-up quartet all became founding members of A Far Cry.) The world of string quartets is full of notoriously epic affairs and breakups. A Far Cry has had its share of epic affairs and breakups, too, but with 17 members, they can absorb a lot more drama. There are at least two sets of exes in the group currently. They're over it.

Another thing that holds them together is an almost deluded sense of dedication. For the first two years, they played for free - even though they worked harder at A Far Cry than they did at any paying gigs they had. Most orchestras hold three rehearsals, tops, before each concert; for A Far Cry, it's more like 13.

In their third season, they were finally able to pay themselves an honorarium of $100 each. "It was just a symbol," says Lewis. This year, they're getting paid for their rehearsals and performances - $50 per rehearsal, $125 per concert.

They have hired an administrative director to oversee operations. But they're still doing their own bookings, fundraising, graphic design, marketing, press liaising, and scheduling. How much time does that take up? "It's incalculable," Lewis sighs. "It's a full-time job. And we've been doing this for free since we started."

Still, she says, "This season has been a turning point in terms of feeling more secure and less, like, just hanging on."

***

Barely three weeks after sharing a stage with Yo-Yo Ma, A Far Cry plays Royale, bathed in its blue and red rock-club lights. This concert is part of the Ecstatic Music Festival, a weeklong program devised by New York composer Judd Greenstein to showcase "post-classical" music. Greenstein has paired the Criers with the bands Slow Six and This Will Destroy You. They'll play the program at Royale tonight and head down to Merkin Hall in Manhattan for a second show tomorrow.

There's a long and not entirely successful history of rock/classical crossovers, from the Kronos Quartet working with Elvis Costello to the Vitamin String Quartet covering Lady Gaga. At its worst,it ends up as a novelty act, a kind of disavowal that classical can be as powerful as rock. Greenstein's festival is trying to prove the opposite.

"Where I found my own voice was at the intersection of classical and non-classical," Greenstein says. He remembers shopping at record stores - back when there were record stores - where the classical section was separated by a glass wall. "I don't see there should be a distinction," he says. "The world of music I want to live in as a composer is one where there isn't a walled-off area of music."

So here are the Criers, crowded onto Royale's stage. They're playing Steve Reich's Triple Quartet, a modern piece with a repetitious, rhythmic drive, one they've played before. In the warm acoustic womb of NEC's Jordan Hall, the music has a hypnotic pull; you listen to it, and then you stop listening, and then shapes and colors start to build out of the repeated sounds.

But it sounds like crap in Royale. The Criers are playing into microphones, and the balance is off, and the result is a weird filtered mix where you can hear too many violins and not enough cellos. The audience is cool, though. They're into ambient, Eno-esque stuff, and they're willing to give A Far Cry a go. It's better when they're playing with the bands. By the time the show ends, around midnight, the Criers's wall of sound has melded with This Will Destroy You's ringing chords, and the crowd is slowly headbanging along.

The next morning, the players stagger out of bed to road-trip down to NYC. I ride along with Unterman and guest musicians Andrew Larsen and Michael Levin in a rented van. When they realize, en route, that I've never listened to Radiohead's Kid A, they insist on playing it for me in its entirety. (Thom Yorke is also on A Far Cry's celebrity list.)

Merkin Hall, in the Kaufman Center, is a totally different venue than Royale; while last night's show placed a classical outfit on a rock stage, tonight the bands are the ones who look out of place in the small, elegant auditorium. The crowd is different, too: half those same Eno-head hipsters from last night, half middle-aged patrons of the arts. When Slow Six start their set, two little old ladies get up and leave in alarm.

A Far Cry isn't miked tonight, and so the Reich can build its power. It's tricky, the kind of piece an unconducted orchestra shouldn't be able to perform; they nail it. The sound system also does huge favors for their amplified sets with Slow Six and This Will Destroy You. I can actually hear the orchestra playing the parts Slow Six's frontman, Christopher Tignor, has composed for them, and I realize for the first time that they're not just backing up the band - they're not a "string section." Tignor has written a complex duet for rock band and orchestra, and when the two sing out together the music grows into an all-powerful wave.

They pass Julliard, the esteemed classical-music institute. "Jailyard!" they cry. Unterman is planning to audition there in March, but he's still not sure what he'd do if he got in. "Don't do it," his colleagues say. "You don't need them."

***

A Far Cry is an unusual orchestra, to say the least, but they're becoming less so all the time. Conductorless orchestras are springing up nationwide: in Houston, in Phoenix, in Augusta, GA, in Washington, DC. And when a conductor cancelled on the Boston Symphony Orchestra last month, they played conductorless - and standing.

There are challenges coming for A Far Cry, though, and they know it. They're also all hovering around 30, and, as Irons says, they're in a race against the responsibilities of mid-adulthood.

"I have a mortgage, Liza [Zurlinden, a violinist] has a baby, everyone's getting married - it's that time," Irons says. "So financially, logistically, we have to get the pay to the point that people aren't forced to leave."

It's something they've talked about as a group: how to make the orchestra sustainable, how to manage not to abandon this experiment, how to let it grow.

"We have to keep on keeping on," says Irons. "We have to not kill each other. We have to not all leave the group at once for safer paychecks. We have to stick with it and think big and - and I believe if we do, we'll be able to retire from this group someday, you know? And it will be full of twenty- and thirtysomethings who are ridiculously energetic and awesome and want to pass it on - want it to outlast us."

"It will be sustainable. It's going to work," Darling says. "The question in my mind is how we stay on a firm upward trajectory - how we as a group keep transcending our own limits."

As for Lee - his temper broke up a quartet, and he doesn't want that to happen again. "The most important thing in your life you can end up pushing away," he says. "But secretly, it's the thing in your life you love the most."

***

There's this sound, when 17 musicians are crammed into a small room, all warming up at once: cacophony. It's as if the music to come - or at least, all the hardest bits of it - has been compacted into a single point, overlapping and jarring.

There's no signal, but suddenly everyone falls silent; it's time to tune, which musicians call "taking the A." In the quiet, Unterman plays a long steady note - an A, exactly 440 Hz - on his cello, and one by one the others join in, tuning their instruments to his, an octave above and below, 17 minds thinking the same thing, tuned to the same sound.

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