Violinist Megumi Stohs Lewis knows one of her skills has distinctly improved since she helped found the Boston-based string orchestra A Far Cry, and it may not be what you’d expect.
“Being in A Far Cry has upped my cooking game,” she said. Lewis’s braised lamb and roasted squash with cardamom sauce helped her team win the day, in fact, at the 2014 A Far Cry Iron Chef contest.
But the “Criers,” as the players call themselves, don’t just cook for competition. The food they make for one another fuels everything from rehearsals to retreats and provides nourishment for conflict-resolution in this highly acclaimed musical ensemble.
That’s particularly useful because A Far Cry places an unusual emphasis on collective decision-making and democratic organization. The group has 16 member players, no conductor, and no artistic director. By rejecting the usual hierarchical leadership, they have made a strength out of what might stop some musicians in their tracks. A Far Cry has performed around the country as well as in Austria and Canada, and it’s a resident chamber orchestra at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It was nominated for a Grammy for its 2014 in-house release “Dreams and Prayers.”
Now, as A Far Cry finishes its 10th season with a flourish — teaming up with the Silk Road Ensemble for a May 26 performance at Jordan Hall — the players have stepped up to a new level both artistically and professionally, without losing sight of the egalitarian approach that got them this far.
In a typical orchestra, string seats are fixed, with the concertmaster making decisions about details such as bowing, and leading the section from a seat of honor close to the conductor. In A Far Cry, all musicians rotate within their sections; the concertmaster for one piece on a program might be in the back of the section for the next, so everyone learns to play principal and supporting roles. “[Supporting] is actually what I enjoy the most now,” violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud explained. “Active supporting, when you have a leader that also appreciates it and incorporates it, is such a rewarding job.”
The ‘Crier Code’
The idea for A Far Cry was born from conversations among five Boston-based musicians in 2006. Two of them, Lewis and former Crier cellist Courtenay Vandiver Pereira, were on the road with the band Jethro Tull as side musicians, sleeping in triple-stacked bunks on the cramped tour bus. Calling the others, they came together and organized the larger group that played A Far Cry’s first concerts the next year, in Brookline and Cambridge.
A strong DIY ethos formed the group’s backbone. “My colleagues were basically like, ‘We need a website! Let’s go to the library and read a book about how to make a website. We need to become a nonprofit. Let’s go to the library,” recalled Cloud of her first experiences in A Far Cry, which she joined in its second year. The group had a part-time administrative director, Kelly Reed, and a series of tour managers, but membership required a willingness to take on numerous administrative tasks, in addition to a high standard of performance.
Until the spring of 2016, musicians held a sizable amount of responsibility for booking, taxes, and box-office sales. Violist Sarah Darling laid out tickets for all their Jordan Hall concerts on a desk in her Jamaica Plain home, for example. But after working with a team from Harvard Business School, the Criers concluded it was time to take a leap.
Bridget Mundy is the newest full-time addition to A Far Cry’s roster. A transplant from her native Ohio, she worked in fund-raising at the Cleveland Orchestra before moving to Boston in 2016 to become A Far Cry’s first executive director.
“It was a dream job in a lot of ways,” she said. “Coming into A Far Cry was ideal because I was coming into a family. Of course, that’s a little bit intimidating. I’m coming into a group of musicians, some of whom have known each other for years and years. . . . But everyone was very welcoming to me.”
Just a few months into Mundy’s tenure, the ensemble was hit with a curveball: a letter from the IRS stating it had lost its nonprofit status after it had missed a deadline, even though it had filed for an extension.
“We couldn’t offer donors a tax deduction for contributions, so our fund-raising basically ground to a halt,” said Mundy. She sought out help from accountants and attorneys and re-submitted the application, learning in late January that the revocation of nonprofit status had been erroneous. With nonprofit status renewed, Mundy has been organizing a focused fund-raising push.
“She just comes in and she exemplifies best practices,” Darling said about Mundy. “We can interact with her in a way that allows us to focus on the most creative aspects of what we might be doing.”
The musicians are still responsible for their rehearsal schedule and the amount of touring they do. A few years ago, Criers scaled back their traveling. “I remember looking around the room at one point and just seeing everyone looked wan, and kind of potbellied and disheveled, just because we were touring so much,” Cloud recalled. “After a few years of that, we thought ‘This is not sustainable. We can’t live this way forever.’ ” As members grew older and wanted to put down roots, she explained, giving back to their home city became more important.
When she got pregnant last year, Lewis said, she felt “so much support” from her fellow players. Her baby was born in April, making her one of several Criers with young children.
At the group’s monthly meeting last December, several Criers gathered at their Jamaica Plain rehearsal space on wooden benches and folding chairs. Others teleconferenced in via Google Hangouts, including one bassist wearing a bathrobe. Darling signed holiday cards on her lap. In methodical fashion, they moved through a checklist of topics including principal assignments for performances, collaboration with a Colorado dance company, and a partnership with a Roxbury school.
So what happens when Criers disagree? They draw on years of work, including a consultation with a professional mediator and the development of guiding principles they call the “Crier Code.” In rehearsals, section members can offer comments and suggestions, but the principals have deciding power. In meetings, conflicts can be resolved through discussion, negotiation, or a vote. Time is always an antidote to tension, as is food. “When the guy who was in your face cooked you that meal that you’re eating . . . it balances out,” said violinist Jae Cosmos Lee.
“You guys, we’re eating pastries from Fiore’s. Are you jealous?” Someone held a box of sweets up to the camera on the wall-mounted monitor at the December meeting, so remotely connected Criers could see.
“Damn!” shouted cellist Loewi Lin, momentarily blowing out the speaker monitors.
When I asked Criers who the group’s star cook was, Lin was the overwhelming favorite. Lee lovingly described Lin’s scones and his beef lo mein, which he had made on the group’s summer retreat at Maine’s Kneisel Hall. “He brought his wok. He brought an outdoor grill. It was a production,” Lee said.
“I think what’s special about everyone in this group is that we all want to take care of each other somehow,” Lin said. “I think it’s important to keep everybody well fed. ”
That yearly summer retreat in Maine is the players’ time to bond, have fun, and plan away from the grind of daily life. They plan their programs, for which anyone can float a proposal. Themes have ranged from “Heartbeats” to “Aurora Borealis” (music from Northern Europe) to last season’s spectacularly eclectic “Mix Tape,” which put tidbits of Mozart, Thomas Adès, and Daft Punk on the same program. Mundy said that the musicians are very much looking forward to this year’s retreat in August.
But first, the group is preparing for the Silk Road Ensemble collaboration, with a new work for the two groups by jazz pianist and Harvard professor Vijay Iyer. The concert is sold out, but an afternoon rehearsal at Boston Conservatory on May 24 will be free and open to the public. And in June, A Far Cry will host pianist Simone Dinnerstein and the Havana Lyceum Orchestra at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Jamaica Plain, as Dinnerstein and the Cuban ensemble kick off a US tour.
The wings of ‘Birds’
In Jamaica Plain, A Far Cry’s rehearsal space occupies a storefront that it shares with the Riot Theater, an improv group. When the instruments go quiet, percussive palo music from the botanica next door wafts into the not-so-soundproof room. A motley collection of saint statues watches over the tiny hallway leading to the bathroom that the two spaces share. When the group rehearses, instrument cases are piled against the walls, and a sign taped to a ledge reads “If you put something on this ledge, a violist will kill you.” Two different handwritings add “With kindness!” and “With knife.”
A window into the ensemble’s rehearsal process came in January. Early one morning, the group gathered for a program designed by cellist Karen Ouzounian and violinist Alex Fortes. Included was a world premiere commission, “The Conference of the Birds,” by composer Lembit Beecher, whom Ouzounian married last year. The piece is based on author and illustrator Peter Sís’s adaptation of a 12th-century Sufi epic poem. In a time of conflict, the birds of the world follow the hoopoe bird in search for their king, embarking on a long, difficult journey that few survive. Reaching a lake atop a mountain where their king was said to await them, those survivors find their own faces reflected back at them.
The work gives a unique part to each player — a particular challenge for a group with no conductor. “The individual parts have different personalities, and I drew on my relationship with the Criers to write parts that loosely reflected individual players,” Beecher explained by e-mail.
Ouzounian, whose principal cello part corresponded to the hoopoe bird in the story, counted the ensemble off to begin rehearsing. Confusion over who was starting rustled through the room, then dissolved into laughter. They started again.
The first few notes materialized, with high harmonics calling to mind a distant gyre of seagulls overhead. Beecher suggested some fine-tuning of dynamics. Again and again they attempted liftoff, but the complex piece produced a number of snags as they tried to control the tempo and follow cues.
Slowly, things began to click. They careened through musical dialogues with ever-changing leaders as many birds voiced their opinions, ending the first movement with a chorus of blunt, percussive strikes that slowly erupted into a takeoff en masse. Darling rose up onto her toes, and for a second she seemed about to fly.
The second and third movements held additional challenges, but the Criers keep to strict rehearsal schedules, and time was running short. Guest soloists Stefan Jackiw and Alexi Kenney were coming to the afternoon rehearsal to practice pieces by Bach and Arvo Pärt, so there was no chance of coming back to it later. At precisely 1:20 p.m., mid-phrase, they stopped for lunch.
“There are so many rehearsals with other orchestras where the energy is dialed in,” Lee said. “And you can feel that! There’s only so much you can rev the engine when your tailpipe is all locked up. In AFC, from the get go, it’s like a well-oiled machine. . . . It’s a nice feeling.”
“The general vibe in A Far Cry is that everyone has a unique voice, and differences are celebrated,” said bassist Karl Doty. “I think in many other ensembles, it’s more of a streamlined thing, where it’s just about doing your job in a professional manner.”
“Even if you don’t give your opinion, I think the knowledge that if you did give it, your opinion would be valued, is really special,” added violinist Liesl Schoenberger Doty, Karl’s wife. The two had met before joining A Far Cry, but began dating after reconnecting in the ensemble, and many Criers flew to Missouri to attend the wedding and play Finnish fiddle music.
At the next day’s rehearsal at the Gardner Museum, the Criers seemed more at ease with the new piece. “I’d like to give you guys some more freedom to figure out what your bird is doing,” Beecher said. Some musicians rubbed sandpaper together, evoking the sound of phantom wings beating en masse. Violinist Alex Fortes experimented, adding extra crunch to the desperate keening of his instrument as his bird expired.
“Just die already,” Darling quipped.
During a break, Cloud offered some insight. “A lot of the time, the most helpful thing you can do to be supportive is emotional support, encouragement, creating an environment where people feel safe being creative and where they feel nurtured to realize their artistic voice,” Cloud said. “You think that it’s almost like a touchy-feely thing, but it really translates into an artistic product.”
Jackiw offered an outsider’s observation: “There’s kind of a sense of investment and curiosity,” the violinist said. “I really feel it when I’m rehearsing with these players. They really are trying to think of ways to bring the piece across as convincingly and compellingly as possible.”
The long week of all-day rehearsals culminated in a Jordan Hall concert where the link between the musicians was palpable. Arranged in a triangle of players, each side bending and flexing with the music, the group resembled nothing less than a giant bird, each player a rippling feather.
“I feel like playing in an A Far Cry concert is a really intense thing. Like, you kind of feel like you’re all holding something up,” Lewis said earlier. “You have to be fully concentrated, and you’re also very vulnerable to each other.”
In “Conference of the Birds,” each instrument’s contribution was distinct, but unified. The birds’ takeoff soared, the distance between the earth and sky becoming at once infinite and infinitesimal.
Afterward, the Criers were beset by admirers as they exited the backstage area. Mundy had ordered pastries from Fiore’s in Jamaica Plain for the reception. They vanished within minutes.
“I never eat at the reception!” Lewis laughed between greeting patrons.
“By the time I get to the reception, everything’s gone,” Lin said on his way out. “I should be baking pastries.”
Even without sweets, one thing was clear; in A Far Cry, no one goes hungry for long.
A FAR CRY
With the Silk Road Ensemble. At Jordan Hall, May 26, 8 p.m. 617-553-4887, www.afarcry.orgZoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.