Reviews and Articles written by William Noll
February 24, 2011
A maestro surveys an orchestra that works without one

Naples Daily News

by William Noll

A Far Cry, a conductorless 14-17member string ensemble from the Boston area, performed on Sanibel Island last weekend, an incentive for a journey out there. Being a maestro, I have always been fascinated as to the how and why of such ensembles. But I've never had an opportunity to actually witness how they work until I was invited to an afternoon rehearsal before their concert.

The rehearsal

A Far Cry maintains an exceptional level of performance that is well known. Its video on YouTube, in fact, inspired me to program Elgar's Introduction and Allegro this season for Classic Chamber Concerts.

The rehearsal ended up being a lesson in the musical "common good." There was a timekeeper. Each composition was allotted a certain number of minutes. No more, no less. They began with the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings, a demanding work, even with a conductor: lots of nuance, tempo changes and balance opportunities. The principal violist suggested playing about two minutes from the begining.

After they stopped, someone from the audience shouted a few sentences about bowing and articulation. He proceeded to commend them on their excellent balance.

Aha! They DO have a conductor (indirectly).

Then a first violinist piped up and began speaking about "breathing together." Another member requested that a cellist not move so much when playing, explaining, "It's distracting." Following several more players requesting other musical ideas, a cellist suggested that the lower strings actually play a passage for an intonation check. Generally if someone made a comment and asked the group to play a certain passage a certain way, that performer would run out into the hall and check it out.

The timekeeper relayed that there were no more minutes for Tchaikovsky, and that they must move on. There was very little playing and much discussion - not exactly the George Sell school of rehearsal style.

The session continued on in like manner. A Far Cry also employs "absolute rotation," meaning that for every composition they play, everyone changes places, the epitome of musical chairs.

The interval
Following the rehearsal, I had an opportunity to chat with some of the players. This ensemble, affectionately known to one another as "Criers", evolved from a group string players who wanted to play chamber music, and just grew and grew.

The group sets enough time for a sufficient number of rehearsals to smoothe things before it performs a work.

A Far Cry also regularly commissions new works, records and performs about 40 concerts per season. Even auditions, I learned, are decided by consensus.

Selected potential members must serve a trial period for complete acceptance.

The performance

Well what to think? Since they have been on tour, playing the same program, perhaps it wasn't necessary to dig in and do a lot of playing at the rehearsal. I wondered how they would handle tempo changes and phrases which demand a keen sense of rubato and subtle nuance. I was even more curious as to their actual performance. The Serenade for Strings turned out to be the highpoint.

Excitement, passion, feelings of spontaneity, exquisite balance and amazing .'..cats of rubati all forged a compelling performance of this oft-performed work.

There was a freshness of spirit that dominated the unfolding of this unique composition. Notably, the final section of the Elgar was absolutely ravishing, with a rare sense of timing. The program opened with an arrangement of Gabriela Frank's "Legends: An Andean Walkabout", which employed unusual string techniques such as percussive bow taps and pizzicatti, brought about a variety of color and nuance. There was some unsteadiness, especially in the opening viola duet. But I enjoyed it enough to want to hear a second hearing at some point.

The program also included a very early baby-Mozart String Divertimento which could have been much lighter in scope and sound. It was a bit over the top for such an early work. And there was a Nocturne 132....Dvorak in which the group took a while to agree on an exact intonation for the sustained opening F sharp.

The group favored us with William Walton's Touch Her Soft Lips and Depart as an encore. We all melted. What a way to go.

The conclusion

I've always said the collective musical intelligence of any orchestra is far greater than that of any single conductor. A Far Cry does not have a conductor - but it does have many leaders. They are honing their processes so all musical ideas can be expressed, not repressed, by every player. 

Perhaps that means every one of them is a conductor. There was one point in the rehearsal in which everyone, it seems, was beaming with enthusiasm about how they had just played a particular passage. But then a cellist shouted out, "Yeah, but I'm NOT happy:" He proceeded to explain his reasons.

Hmm. That sounds like the old-school conductor process to me.

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