For A Far Cry, ‘Memory’ has many meanings

Self-conducted string orchestra will play Mozart, Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Pärt

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20150929 -- A Far Cry, photographed in South Boston, MA, USA on Tuesday, September 29, 2015. (Photo by Yoon S. Byun)
Yoon S. Byun

A Far Cry, a self-directed string ensemble of 17 players headquartered in Boston, will play “Memory” Saturday (Feb. 8) in Macky Auditorium.

No, not the ballad crooned by Jennifer Hudson in the new film of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats

A Far Cry’s “Memory” is a program of concert music that includes Tchaikovsky’s popular Serenade for Strings, performed from memory. Other works on the program will be Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten, Mozart’s Serenade in D major, K239, known as the Serenata notturna (Nocturnal serenade), and Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings.

Founded in 2007, A Far Cry is one of a growing number of orchestras in the classical music world that perform without a conductor — or as they put it, they are a self-conducted orchestra. “A Far Cry is not conductorless,” founding member Megumi Stohs Lewis says. “We have 18 conductors, but we rotate so that we’re not all conducting at the same time.”

According to their website, A Far Cry is “a democracy in which decisions are made collectively and leadership rotates among the players.” Lewis admits that this makes the selection of repertoire and other artistic decisions more complicated than in a traditional symphony, but she says, “it’s really invigorating for everyone.

“The fact that we all pitch in on programming also affects the concerts, because for every piece we play, we know why we are playing it. We voted to play that piece, so [there’s] 100% buy-in from everybody.”

Over the years, A Far Cry has developed a system in which the selection of programming is ongoing. Anyone in the group can suggest a program, which is then voted on by the membership in group meetings.

“We usually vote on a whole program, so we keep the thread that ties the program together,” Lewis explains. “We might workshop it together, or we might say I love the concept but one piece doesn’t fit very well.”

In addition to the collective decision-making, the players rotate in the parts they play and in taking solo or leadership roles in performance. For example, Lewis will be serving as concertmaster for the Tchaikovsky Serenade for the very first time on the current tour. “We’ve played that so much, and I’ve been waiting for the right time,” she says. “I think doing it on the ‘Memory’ tour is the perfect time.”

It is the Tchaikovsky that provides the theme for the program, since it is literally played from memory. “That’s probably the piece that we’ve played the most since the beginning,” Lewis says. “We don’t have a conductor already, and then we’re taking away the music and the stands — it really changes the dynamic for us. It makes it all about communication.

“You have to know the music so well, you have to know what everyone else is playing. It brings out for us, and also for the audience, the pure music. We have played it from memory before, [but] never toured with it from memory. It’s been a special experience, and we want to share that with more audiences.”

The other piece on the program with an obvious “memory” connection is the opening piece, Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten, written in memory of a composer Pärt particularly admired. “It’s kind of meditative and is really beautiful,” Lewis says.

“I think of it as setting the stage for the concert. It’s taking you out of your everyday world, taking you somewhere different and getting you ready to experience everything that you’re about to hear on the concert. It’s the kind of music you can fall into.”

The Elgar Introduction and Allegro is on the program for a reason that is more personal for the “criers,” as the members of the ensemble call themselves. It has been part of the group’s repertoire from their very first year, and therefore conjures up special memories for the players.

“It’s just lush and gorgeous,” Lewis says. “Elgar really knew how to write for strings. It’s not easy — there’s a fugue that is really hard — [but for] audiences it’s kind of a sonic bath.”

Mozart’s Serenade has the least connection to the “memory” theme, except that as music it seems to fit with the other pieces. Both the Elgar and the Mozart have a solo quartet of players in addition to the larger string group, which ties them together conceptually.

The four solo players for the Mozart are not quite a standard string quartet: two violins, viola and string bass in place of cello. “The fact that the bass gets to be so virtuosic is really cool, and so unusual for that time,” Lewis says. 

“It is so fun, I think of that piece as a big party.”  

ON THE BILL: ‘Memory’ — A Far Cry ensemble. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8, Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant St., Boulder, cupresents.org