Classical collaborations

Grammy-nominated string orchestra A Far Cry and Exeter’s Chamber Orchestra join forces on rehearsals and a transcendent concert.

Melanie Nelson
October 31, 2017
Members of Exeter's Chamber Orchestra perform with A Far Cry

Exonian musicians and A Far Cry rehearse in The Bowld.

Evening light streams through the windows of “The Bowld,” Exeter’s year-old performance space, creating a lapidary effect. On each side of the room hang elegant wooden baffles, intended to refract and modulate the sounds of the musicians who will shortly begin rehearsal. On the left floor sit a covered piano and timpani, while on the right a line of cello and double-bass cases begins to form, a row of gigantic dominos.

Taking their places at stands that music instructor and conductor Rohan Smith has carefully arranged, members of Exeter’s Chamber Orchestra commence warm-ups. A cacophony of scales and laughter ensues, the deep thrumming of the celli and basses contrasting with the high-pitched plucking of the violins.

Joining Smith and his students this evening are six members of A Far Cry, the self-directed, Grammy-nominated, Boston-based string orchestra. They have come to Exeter for two days of intense rehearsals with the violinists, violists, cellists and bassists of Exeter’s Chamber Orchestra in advance of a Friday night concert that the two groups will jointly present.

Violinist Alex Fortes of A Far Cry (individual members are known as “Criers”) is the designated leader of the rehearsals, providing demonstrations, feedback and encouragement. Fellow Crier and violinist Miki-Sophia Cloud, we’ll learn later, has curated the three concert pieces that will be played on Friday. Music selection and conducting is a shared effort among the 17 Criers, who work and operate democratically.

After a brief round of introductions, Fortes explains to the students that A Far Cry began work on Ouverture-Suite “Les Nations,” the Georg Philipp Telemann composition on which they’ll be collaborating, the previous Sunday. “We think of it as a fun and silly piece,” he says, “like an Olympics opening ceremony that might have occurred in the 18th century.” Indeed, as the first notes explode and reverberate, there is an undeniable sense of majesty, aided and abetted by The Bowld’s exquisite acoustics.

To the untrained ear, these musicians sound precisely synchronous. Yet when Fortes or fellow Crier violinist Robyn Bollinger pause to offer suggestions and tweaks, the students seem to intuit what’s coming even before the words are spoken. Beyond attentive, they are rapt. “I want us to use the area around the fiddle as much as possible,” Fortes instructs. The Chamber Orchestra gives a collective nod.

An hour in, break is called, and students take five. “They’re SOOOO GOOOOOD,” whispers an Exonian as she makes her way to one of The Bowld’s signature red seats. Chamber Orchestra concertmaster Sophia Oguri ’18, a four-year senior, is equally effusive. “Their energy and communication are incredible. To see classical musicians who are so young, yet so passionate and connected, is truly inspiring.”

Conductor Smith concurs: “Having our Chamber Orchestra string students work with professional artists in a ‘side-by-side’ arrangement is a really unique and multi-level experience. First, there is the intense buzz and excitement that comes with being on stage with artists who are as brilliant and charismatic as the Criers, and who are a hundred percent ‘on’ all the time. This automatically elevates the students’ performance. Second, a huge part of the learning experience for the students is the physical sound and body language that they absorb from the Criers playing beside them, a kind of non-verbal learning experience on steroids. Third, in the rehearsals, the kids are immersed in an open give-and-take of musical ideas with the Criers and are able to absorb the importance of details of style and technique. All in all, it is an amazing body-mind-heart experience for our students that all comes together in the excitement and intensity of performance.”

Before the next evening’s concert, the two orchestras gather twice more: for Friday’s assembly, where together they play three movements from “Les Nations,” and then at a dress rehearsal later the same morning, during which finishing touches are put on the piece.

With dusk giving way to darkness, musical aficionados and musical novices alike begin streaming into The Bowld. The venue quickly fills to capacity, prompting several members of the Music Department faculty to scurry for extra folding chairs.

The clock strikes seven, and Crier Cloud steps out from among her fellow professional musicians and the members of Exeter’s Chamber Orchestra to introduce the concert. She explains that the program for the evening, titled “Music in Migration,” will include three pieces that she has selected: Telemann’s Ouverture-Suite “Les Nations,” to be performed with the Exeter students; Elena Ruehr’s Piano Concerto No. 1, featuring acclaimed pianist Heng-Jin Park; and Mieczyław Weinberg’s Symphony No. 10, Op. 98.

“The music you will hear tonight,” Cloud continues, “is intended to cover the miles — the distance — between us as people, and to move us deeper and deeper into empathy.” The concert commences. The music, sublime, shocks and thrills. A standing ovation at the end indicates that Cloud’s assemblage has achieved, and perhaps surpassed, her goals.


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