“When did things stop feeling normal?”
Alex Fortes, a violinist with the string orchestra A Far Cry, was struck by this question during a recent Zoom interview. The group begins its 15th season next week, marking AFC’s return to indoor, in-person music-making. As with virtually every musical organization, it had its plans overturned by the pandemic, and the close-knit interaction among the conductorless ensemble’s members had to change along with it.
“Thank God for Zoom, because we could keep meeting about things,” said violist Jason Fisher, also on the interview. “But it felt like a constant meet, plan, change, and then meet, plan, change again.”
What struck Fortes about the question of normalcy, though, was the fact that AFC was founded, in his words, “to try to eliminate the concept of normal in classical music. We’ve constantly challenged ourselves to reinvent ourselves.”
So it was perhaps easier for AFC to adapt to the challenges and crises engendered by COVID-19. The group did its first outdoor performances late last summer, followed shortly by virtual chamber music performances and, later, by streaming concerts with the full group. Earlier this summer, AFC did its first outdoor full-group performances in a Northeast tour that included stops in Vermont, Rhode Island, and New York’s Central Park.
Not that all that change has been easy, even for a group as flexible and forward-thinking as AFC. Fortes said that the COVID-induced, 6-foot distance between players was one of the hardest things to get used to because of the loss of “immediate peripheral vision, a sense of how someone is moving and being able to hear their breathing.”
Fisher noted that for the virtual concerts, “there was a feeling that we put in three or four times the effort to make these things come off. And the satisfaction return as a player was, like, less than half of what you would get in a concert hall — both musically and collectively, just missing that immediacy of having the audience there.”
All of which means that AFC is understandably thrilled to be on the threshold of beginning its new season with actual, audience-present concerts, even as it also tries to preserve the best of what the players learned over the past year, including the discovery of entirely new audiences. “When we were doing these virtual programs, people who live in Mexico and Taiwan and Spain, all over the world, were tuning in,” Fortes said. “And we want to make sure that that audience continues to be cultivated.”
But, he added, “there’s no substitute for the connection between a performer and an audience.”
The season’s thematically driven programs adhere to the adventurous, inquisitive model AFC has cultivated in its first decade and a half. The first program, “Cycle of Life” (at Jordan Hall on Sept. 17 and South Shore Conservatory in Hingham on Sept. 18), begins at the beginning, with arrangements of lullabies from various cultures, and ends with the slow movement of Beethoven’s F-major String Quartet, op.135, one of the last movements he composed and music with an ineffable sense of farewell. In between come works by Bartok, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh, Dvorak, and AFC bassist Karl Doty. Taken as a whole, the season repertoire ranges from Bach and Boccherini to Caroline Shaw, Jessie Montgomery, Lei Liang, and a world premiere by composer David Crowell (a former member of the Philip Glass Ensemble).
“Having seen all our plans transform 45 times [last season], seeing the things that we weren’t able to do, I think we kind of moved a bit back into the center of what we like to achieve in our programming,” Fisher explained. “That connection with the audience, opening up the mind to new works, new connections — taking the essence of who we are as A Far Cry and leaning into that.”
As every performing arts organization has learned, though, all plans can go awry, so the whole season comes with a certain tentativeness attached to it — something the group is surprisingly OK with, according to Fortes. “We’re very comfortable saying it’s all subject to change,” he said. “There are so many unknown unknowns in our life that we don’t know what might happen in March of 2022. And I think there’s something really liberating about that, a certain way of saying, ‘Well, this is what we’re going to do, unless we’re not going to do it.’”
Fifteen is an age at which many groups that started in an “alternative” category become comfortable enough in their molds that they risk becoming predictable. Fisher, though, wasn’t concerned when asked whether AFC might be in danger of losing its freshness. He puts his trust squarely in the Criers, all of them co-directors of the ensemble. It’s a democratic leadership model that Fisher is gratified to see being taken up by younger ensembles.
“I think there’s a lot that has yet to be put out in the world from our 18 members,” he said. “Even as I look at the founding members that are still in the group, I know that they’re still creating really exciting content. It just feels like when you have 18 people sharing that artistic responsibility, there’s always a fresh idea in the room, even if some somebody has two screaming infants at home and never sleeps.”
A FAR CRY
At Jordan Hall, Sept. 17; South Shore Conservatory, Hingham, Sept. 18. $25-$75. 617-553-4887; www.afarcry.org
David Weininger can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.