A Far Cry makes Chautauqua debut with Mozart, Britten

A Far Cry

Kelsey Burritt | Staff Writer

A Far Cry is the Goldilocks of the Logan Chamber Series this season — too large to be a quartet, too small to be an orchestra, but just right in their 16-member, self-conducted string ensemble.

“We end up being like the elephant, like the behemoth in a lot of the series that we go to, just because of the sheer number of people,” said Sarah Darling, a violinist in the ensemble. “The idea is that anybody in the group — they’re in the group because they love leading and they love following, and you have to be able to do both.”

A Far Cry was founded in Boston in 2007 by a group of friends linked through a network of graduate schools throughout the city. Originally gathering to read chamber music for fun, the group eventually planned a concert for friends. The concert was a huge success, and the group has skyrocketed since then.

Performing more than 200 times in its five years, the ensemble released its debut album in 2009 and its latest album, Piazzolla, in 2011.

“It’s a hybrid between a quartet and an orchestra,” said Frank Shaw, a violinist and one of the group’s founding members. “The process of rotating leadership, rotating responsibilities, rotating your role in the group — we’ve learned a lot over the years, I think, in terms of knowing when to step up or step back.”

A Far Cry’s unique operation makes for an easy comparison to a democratic system. Each piece of music features a principle quartet within the ensemble,
which makes the artistic decisions that transfer to the group at large. Even within the principal group, a leader is elected to make executive decisions.

The core of principal players rotates based on the piece, so within one concert, almost every member will hold a leading role at one point or another, Darling said.

The ensemble also must program concerts together, which proves to be difficult as all of the members have equal ownership and responsibility in the group, Shaw said.

“We come up with programs that no one person could ever come up with by themselves,” he said.

“We’re totally committed to a programming process which reflects the diversity of the members of the group,” Darling said, “and which also reflects the absolute diversity of what is out there for a chamber orchestra to be able to perform.”

In addition to its unique methods of selecting repertoire and rehearsing together, the group does so on display, behind glass windows in their storefront rehearsal space in Boston.

“This is not originally our idea — we unabashedly stole it from the Community MusicWorks in Providence. We do all of our rehearsing in a space which is visible to others,” Darling said. “It’s become more of a trend in classical music these days, to let people into the room where you make the sausage, so you can actually see what’s going on in here.”

Members call themselves Criers and have always valued their identities. Maintaining their personalities, the people within the group and their experiences, Shaw said, is more important to them than touring as just a name.

“We’ve always taken part in both the administration and the artistic process as members, so we’ve always had a shared responsibility and therefore a more intricate understanding of what needs to happen in order to have a successful concert,” Shaw said. “It’s not just playing the right notes.”

For the concert today at 4 p.m. in Elizabeth Lenna Hall, A Far Cry will perform three pieces: Last Round by Osvaldo Golijov, Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and Benjamin Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge, Op. 10.

The Golijov is a piece written for two string quartets and a string bass and performed so that the two quartets face each other with the string bass in the middle.

“These quartets are essentially engaged in, I want to say, dialogue with each other, but it’s actually more like a punching battle,” Darling said. “You’ve got these quartets playing tangos and taking shots at each other at the same time. It’s really a very powerful piece to experience.”

The piece was written in memory of the famous composer Astor Piazzolla; the dueling quality in the piece characterizes his last fight before he died. The second movement is a slower milonga, more of a lament than the “macho” first movement.

“At times, it’s supposed to resemble a bandoneón, so it’s got a lot of these long glisses, these slides from high notes to low notes in the violins,” Shaw said. “It’s a very rich work.”

Although the group has played several of Mozart’s divertimenti, it will be their first time performing his Eine kleine Nachtmusik, one of his most recognizable works.

The last piece on the program is another memorial, written by Britten for his late composition teacher Frank Bridge. It was one of the first pieces the group played, and after letting it marinate for a while, pulled it out again for the program, Darling said.

“It’s a series of really fantastic variations on one of Bridge’s melodies. It goes all over the map,” Darling said. “The variations often leave the theme behind and explore entirely different territory, but then at the end, it all comes back in an absolutely magnificent way.”

Although this will be the group’s first visit to Chautauqua, Shaw has been coming to the Institution for many summers. Once a student in the School of Music, Shaw is also the son of Clyde Shaw, the cellist in the Audubon Quartet. The quartet, a staple in the Logan Series for many years, performed their final concert at Chautauqua last August.

The first summer the quartet has not returned, Shaw will perform with A Far Cry, following in his father’s footsteps in an almost pitch-perfect way.