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EXCLUSIVE: A Far Cry on NEC, GRAMMYs, 10th Anniversary Season & Still No Need for a Conductor

By Lisa Helfer Elghazi on Oct 11, 2015 07:22 AM EDT

As A Far Cry founding member Megumi Stohs Lewis tells it, when the orchestra was created in 2007, several members were finishing up graduate degree programs at the New England Conservatory. Not all of the “Criers” are NEC alums, but the conservatory grounds proved to be a thoughtful gathering spot for most of the original members. Everyone, though, was interested in exploring chamber music, with many having played under Donald Palma in NEC's finely tuned chamber orchestra.

Inspired, then, by NEC faculty, various student ensembles and the overall atmosphere of collaboration there on campus, soon enough, A Far Cry would strike out on their own. The group played its first official concerts in May of 2007. Next, the original gang of 17 incorporated, replete with a board of directors, to begin their incredible, self-led voyage in earnest.

Nearly a decade later, on the record side, AFC has put out seven albums -- receiving a 2015 GRAMMY nomination (Best Chamber Music, Small Ensemble) for their first release, Dreams and Prayers, on their own label, Crier Records.

Performance-wise, the Criers still call Boston home, all the while notching hundreds of performances coast to coast and across the globe.

Meanwhile, their livestreamed concerts and YouTube archive have garnered hundreds of thousands of likes and views. At the forefront of a new, exciting paradigm for classical music, itself, A Far Cry continue to expand the ways in which it's prepared, performed and experienced.

And at the heart of that model is a firm commitment to community and education. With a rehearsal space and office storefront in the Jamaica Plain neighborhood, AFC remains in the public ear with a series of concerts at NEC's Jordan Hall and as the chamber orchestra in residence at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Fenway-Kenmore. Pedagogically, the Criers lead sectionals for NEC prep students, offering the undergrads their brand of real world coaching via the conservatory's entrepreneurial musicianship program.

Classicalite caught up with founding violinist Megumi Stohs Lewis and founding cellist Loewi Lin, as well as the group’s newest violin player, Robyn Bollinger, to talk NEC, AFC's ten (tin?) anniversary, GRAMMY noms, Google docs and why so many cooks still don't need a chef on the podium.

CLASSICALITE: For starters, individually, why music? And why performance? Perhaps more importantly, why musical performance as a profession?

MEGUMI STOHS LEWIS: I loved playing violin. I especially loved performing, but not always practicing. I didn't want to play music professionally until I was 16. I was actually going to be a farmer, because I love farming. At 16, I attended a chamber music camp -- which happened to be on a farm. I played music with people I loved every day, and I decided that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

LOEWI LIN: I wanted to be a doctor when I entered high school, but something changed inside me very quickly. The way that I was learning in high school made me really hate reading textbooks and being in a big classroom. At the same time, I was getting more serious with cello, so in the last year of high school, I decided to change my path. It was quite intense and crazy, having to prepare for college auditions. I had no idea it would take me where I am now.

ROBIN BOLLINGER: To be honest, it never occurred to me to do anything else. I love music, I love practicing, and I love playing with and for others. This is how I can make a difference in the world.

CLASSICALITE: Getting closer to A Far Cry's origin story, how did each of you come to study at New England Conservatory?

MSL: The big influencer for me was meeting my teacher, Lucy Chapman, and other NEC-bound students at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival in Maine. I did my B.M. at the San Francisco Conservatory and was deciding between New York and Boston. I'm so glad I chose Boston.

LL: I came to NEC to do my master's. At the time, there didn't seem to be any other suitable choice for me. On top of that, I wanted to study with Laurence Lesser, who is a fantastic teacher and one of our closest links to Gregor Piatigorsky. This legacy was important to me, and I wanted to be a part of it.

RB: I'm originally from Philadelphia. My parents both went to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philly, and it was always assumed that Curtis would be my first choice for college. However, in December of my senior year, I met Miriam Fried and had a lesson. I knew then that I really wanted to study with her. I was so excited when I got my acceptance letter! I studied at NEC with Miriam Fried for six years and received my B.M. and M.M. It sounds really corny, but I'm grateful every single day to have gone to NEC.

CLASSICALITE: Master string teachers like Chapman, Lesser, Fried -- clearly, you'd all recommend the teacher-student conservatory approach a place like NEC offers.

MSL: Yes, the faculty was definitely the deciding factor for me. NEC was my final decision. There is an atmosphere of success at NEC. I saw my peers being successful, and I worked with faculty who had done the things I wanted to do.

LL: NEC attracts the best students from all over the world. Thus, the environment is of a certain type, which will push you to your limits. It's also crucial to find the right teacher. A good teacher will show you to doors that you didn't know existed. A great teacher will do that, then open the door for you. The kicker is that great teachers aren't necessarily at the best schools.

RB: Absolutely. I am who I am today because of NEC. The teachers and role models I had access to, both in lessons and classes, are just amazing. They are caring, understanding, generous people. The environment is the perfect balance of motivating, inspiring and supportive. Everyone should go to NEC.

CLASSICALITE: Specifically, how (and why) did you found (or join) A Far Cry? And what's the process for coordinating so many moving parts, both musically and just administrative?

MSL: I am a founding member of the group. At the time, most of us were finishing up some sort of masters or graduate degree. A lot of us were studying at NEC, playing in an orchestra with maestro [Donald] Palma. In 2007, 17 of us tried to figure out how to form an orchestra. We just went from there. From the beginning, we were extremely well received by faculty members at NEC. There was always a great energy around what we were doing. It took us a few years to grow beyond the circle of people we already knew. We sent invitations to music critics and talked to our mentors. Pretty soon, we reached the greater Boston public. Then, it went global. I believe we've been successful because we have such a strong commitment from each member. When we first started out, we wanted to be democratic and rotate our leadership. We had to figure out if that meant everyone would be a section leader. For instance, if we select a concertmaster, some would be principal seconds. We eventually decided that everyone would have the chance to lead equally, in playing and in other artistic matters. That decision has paid off, as it's not just two or three people pulling it along. We always have an overabundance of ideas and programs because everyone is contributing now. That's how we get some of our greatest ideas. We empower our members by inviting everyone to participate. It's also the way we have accessed so many collaborations. For example, someone says, "I want to do a something with Gabriel Kahane, let's make that happen." And it does.

We use Google calendars for scheduling purposes. One person is responsible for coordinating all the schedules. As we have matured and started booking shows, we have adopted a guideline for how we manage all of our schedules. Now, we schedule a year to two years out in advance. We have a messy model. Everyone has ownership, and we all have different ideas of what the group is, but that's what makes it so special. However, we have group meetings that are very organized. Criers have to submit their proposals several days in advance if they want the group to vote on something. We have two retreats every year, as well. Our summer retreat is in Maine. The winter retreat is in Vermont.

LL: I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by musicians who, at the time, included me in the creation of this group. I am so thankful that all of the experiences I had been a part of up until that point shaped me to be a person that could fit seamlessly with the other founders.

RB: Before I joined, coming in as a guest to AFC was always inspiring, challenging and thought-provoking. The level of artistry, discourse and collaboration in rehearsals -- and in the organization -- is at such a high level. It's so exciting to be at the forefront of the classical music scene, and it's a great responsibility to be redefining the role of classical music in society. It's that energy and that sincerity combined that are totally the essence of AFC. I think with our combined strengths and vision, AFC is in a unique position in music. I definitely want to be a part of that.

CLASSICALITE: Conductor versus conductorless, with A Far Cry, it's the latter that's won.

MSL: We love conductors! However, our idea was always to perform chamber music, and it seemed natural to do that without a conductor. In chamber music, everyone already knows the score. Therefore, they are responsible for their own reactions to the music and for making the musicians around them sound more beautiful. In AFC, each person is responsible for creating the whole sound. So, the ideal way to achieve that is without a conductor. Our conductorless orchestra maximizes what we each bring to the table. And as a group, we feel less restricted this way. We talk about the mission and message of our group a lot. It is, of course, music focused, but the model is radically democratic. This is a huge part of how we produce our sound, and it's also important for our lives. We frequently ask ourselves, "what kind of organization are we? And what do we want to be for the future?" This is very important for us as musicians.

I once saw a job satisfaction survey: Orchestral musicians are usually at the bottom and quartet musicians are at the top. I believe orchestras rank so low because there can be a sense of powerlessness. People go into music for good reasons, but they become disillusioned. Our model keeps the inspiration going. We have the chance to choose. I do love that about A Far Cry. It is very empowering to be an individual in this group, and we all feel that this traverses lines beyond music. We are able to bring classical music to people who are not familiar with it at all. There is such a philosophical side to this group. It originated out of the desire to play music, but it's evolved into something that is much bigger.

LL: Without a conductor, the responsibility of creating music falls onto the musicians. More specifically, how you lead, cue and play with your body. Also, without a conductor, you are somewhat able to focus more on what the other musicians are trying to create at any given moment. Having said that, some of my most inspiring moments have been under conductors. They are very rare, but when you have a real conductor on the podium, it can be a force. You know in the first 10 seconds whether or not he/she is fit. A great conductor is able to make every person in the orchestra feel like they are part of an organism. It's possible to get this feeling in an ensemble without a conductor, but it could take a long time.

RB: Being conductorless gives us more autonomy and control, and it requires everyone to be involved on a higher level. It takes more work and more energy, but it's worth it. We are always experimenting. We are constantly pushing boundaries in programming, in expectations, in structure. I think in our collaborations, we're really good at planned experimentation. The planned aspect is essential; for a group our size, everyone must be involved and on board for an experiment to work. That's something we're really good at: Coming up with these crazy, spontaneous ideas, and then implementing them carefully and joyously.

CLASSICALITE: So, what's next for A Far Cry? Can you talk a bit about what the group is presently working on, or what's to come later? You do have a birthday coming up.

MSL: As usual, five million things...we are currently programming our 10th season. so this is an important anniversary for us in 2016-2017. We are working on the fundraising and marketing campaigns for this season. Fundraising will help us implement a new component -- which is that we would like to add more professional staff to our model. In terms of what we are doing creatively to prepare for our performance season, each member of the group has to submit their musical programs. Then, everyone listens to everyone else's programs. With 18 of us, it's been a lot of listening! We are also planning a European tour. I started Crier Records two years ago, but we recently submitted our second album, Law of Mosaics, for GRAMMY consideration in 2016.

LL: We just finished a New England tour of our TransAmericana program. We started with the mesmerizing Glass Symphony No. 3, then a fantastic imaginative piece called Andean Walkabout by Gabriela Lena Frank, followed by the jivey Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9 by Villa-Lobos. We finished with the super dark and intense Concerto Per Corde by Alberto Ginastera. All of the works have a very distinctive DNA, which makes for a very satisfying program.

RB: Planning the 10th anniversary programs has been very exciting. There's so much great music, and we're a pretty creative group, so we're psyched for this season!

GARGANTUOUS! And less than one week away!

Posted by A Far Cry on Saturday, October 10, 2015

CLASSICALITE: OK, what about your careers solo, away from AFC? Gigs, rep, etc.?

MSL: I love playing both baroque and modern classical instruments. I'm currently working on Beethoven sonatas with a pianist. This keeps me centered. I'm also doing a bunch of other projects. Some are solo, some are chamber. I'm part of Antico/Moderno, a period instrument ensemble that exists to commission new works from living composers solely for period instruments. We have a residency at First Lutheran in downtown Boston and are collaborating with a group at Yale.

LL: I try to keep the hard passages of the cello solo literature and chamber music literature in my fingers at all times.

RB: I'm always working on some solo stuff. Right now, I'm working on a few Paganini caprices, Bach's sonata in g minor and a lovely little encore piece by Schumann, along with all the usual scales and études. I'm also thinking about learning the Schumann concerto this fall. It's really important for me to always get in some of my own practice time.

CLASSICALITE: Where is your favorite place to perform, either individually or with AFC as a whole? 

MSL: Honestly, I don't have one. I feel that we are so lucky to have Boston as our home. AFC currently has two music residencies with NEC and the Gardner Museum. Jordan Hall is the perfect hall for a group of our size. In terms of sound, it's ideal. And the intimate feel of the seating means you feel like you can reach every seat, while still having a large audience capacity. We care a lot about connecting with our audiences, and this space particularly helps us do that. The Gardner is so unique, and it inspires us to do very interesting things. We have experimented with in-the-round seating and the balconies. We commissioned a piece from fellow NEC alum Shaw Pong Liu based on bird songs. [Editor's note: Arise.] We moved around the space as we played. So, it really sounded like birds outside. The Gardner's non-traditional space has really inspired us far as programming.

 

Also, we played a special event at the Wiener Musikverein in Vienna. I thought, wow, this is why the Vienna Philharmonic plays the way it does, to produce the amazing sound they do. Performance halls are great, but I also love different spaces like farmers' markets. People aren't expecting it there. Another place I like to play is at St. John's Church in Jamaica Plain. It's a very casual venue, but it's like a neighborhood party. The audience actually talks back to us. I love that in Boston. We can do all of these things. The variety is what I love!

LL: Musikverein in Vienna was a very special place. It felt like there was a sheen of gold poured over your sound. The audience was also very receptive. Music seemed different to people in Europe. It is embedded in their culture, an integral part of their lives. It makes for a different concert experience, in my opinion.

RB: My favorite place to perform is Jordan Hall. After so many years at NEC, Jordan Hall feels like home. When I think about all the history and the great music that has happened in that space, I still get chills. It's an honor to play on that stage.

CLASSICALITE: Speaking of Jordan Hall, all three of you remain very involved with the goings on at your alma mater. Can you speak a bit about your roles with NEC's educational and entrepreneurial programs?

MSL: The entrepreneurial musicianship department hadn't started when we were all attending, but it has been so great to work with them in a mentorship role post-graduation. We work with students and get to see how the experience base we help provide really changes their understanding of the music profession. Through this program, we invite fellows from NEC to play with us.

LL: It's an honor to know that you are influencing the younger generation. So, that's a rewarding feeling. Playing with AFC is a very unique experience, and I think it's great that the students can take part in it. It's also very inspiring because I learn from them, too. They are always getting better.

RB: It's really exciting to see students get involved in AFC. They bring a new dynamic of energy and enthusiasm to our artistic process, and they're very helpful behind the scenes. We're really lucky to have such a wonderful partnership with NEC in this way.

CLASSICALITE: Looking back, be it as solo musicians, members of AFC or mentors now at NEC, what about your time at the New England Conservatory has proven to be the most valuable, made the biggest impact?

MSL: From the beginning of A Far Cry, we have welcomed community participation. And I attribute that to the fact that many of the Criers worked in quartets with Tanya Maggi and the community performances and partnerships programs at NEC. This experience helped us develop the programs we do for students now. It also influenced the open performances we hold for the community. Tanya prepared us so well. I always felt so confident because of her training. Community outreach is now one of the main principles of AFC. Tanya's influence is definitely a factor in this; she helped us develop the skills and confidence we needed.

LL: The most influential experiences from NEC were the coaching and lessons. There are so many fantastic teachers and, in the end, you realize that you only get to meet and work with a small percentage of them. Also, because NEC is a top-tier music school, you meet and develop important relationships with other students who will become your colleagues further down the line.

RB: I'm pretty fresh out of school, so NEC is still a huge part of my life. Most of my professional contacts are connected to NEC in one way or another. I view NEC as a tremendous resource as I build my career over the next few years.

CLASSICALITE: Finally, any last words of advice for present students at NEC?

MSL: That's so tricky. Before you graduate, I'd say start branching out into the world of music in Boston. It's much harder to be completely immersed in school, and then suddenly be out of school. Start to do as many things as you can. Also, experiment with starting your own projects. For example, you might have an idea for a series or want to focus on just one project. Keep trying things. You will learn a lot along the way!

LL: Work on your basics everyday. Focus on your bow. Listen to old recordings much more than new ones. Make logical musical decisions, which you can back up by pointing at a score.

RB: I'm a pretty recent graduate, so I guess this is mostly for my peers: think big, work hard and keep practicing.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, A Far Cry, Megumi Stohs Lewis, Loewi Lin, Robyn Bollinger, New England Conservatory, Classicalite Q&A, Grammys, Shaw Pong Liu, Jordan Hall