Conductorless and fancy-free, a chamber orchestra takes flight
BROOKLINE - Ever wonder why so many orchestral musicians, even after playing the most glorious concert, still look miserable on stage? Maybe because they are. A Harvard study of comparative job satisfaction once found that orchestral musicians ranked near the bottom of all the professions surveyed, in the vicinity of prison wardens. By contrast, chamber musicians in the same study ranked near the top, right up there with airplane pilots.
So if you're a young musician looking for a career more closely linked to boundless skies than to incarceration, the implication would seem clear: Start a chamber ensemble. Or, if you have a lot of friends who feel the same way, try a chamber orchestra. And since, presumably, the whole point is to be artistically enfranchised and fully invested in a creative process, leave out the conductor.
That's basically what happened with the 16 young conservatory-trained string players who founded A Far Cry, a conductorless chamber orchestra based in Jamaica Plain, where most of the musicians live. The idea was incubated at three music festivals - Lyricafest, Kneisel Hall, and Yellow Barn - and came to life in early 2007. The group now has its own rehearsal and office space, has gone on a West Coast tour, and will soon be releasing its first recording. On Friday night, the core players and a few guests performed a program of works influenced by folk traditions at St. Paul's Church here.
As the works on the first half - Bartok's Romanian Folk Dances, Holst's "St. Paul's Suite," and two tangos by Piazzolla - made clear, these musicians play wonderfully together. They have forged a group sound that is both tightly unified but also flexible and nuanced, cohesive yet without any sense of forced unanimity. In moments of the Bartok that called for earthy folk-style fiddling the players dug into the strings as soloists might but still retained an integrated group sound. And it seems relevant to report that the musicians appeared to be having a ball on stage, smiles darting between sections like 16th notes.
Dvorak's Serenade for Strings was a natural fit and the orchestra navigated it well after intermission, bringing a spacious lyricism to the Larghetto movement. The night ended with a fiery and freewheeling rendition of "Turceasca" by the Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Haidouks (arranged by Osvaldo Golijov and Ljova). It's a great piece for showcasing the ensemble's collective chops and the broader joie de vivre that is obviously at the core of this enterprise. The orchestra should consider memorizing it and playing it as an encore on other programs.
The bigger question of course is whether a group like this can survive. The ensemble relishes the slow work of assembling a program and proudly assigns itself 15 rehearsals - instead of the usual four - for each set of concerts. Just this year its members, who are mostly in their 20s, are starting to be paid, but the compensation is still at a symbolic level. Most survive through other freelance work or teaching; a few are still graduate students.
Let's hope they make it, and without losing their distinctive style. Friday's program had a thrilling energy and vitality. The city's classical music scene needs them.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.