The self-led orchestra A Far Cry, normally artistically home at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Jordan Hall, and St. John’s Church JP, does a runout to Ithaca this week to kickstart a 3-day, 3-performance tour with the celebrated pianist Simone Dinnerstein built on an arrangement for piano and chamber orchestra of J. S. Bach’s keyboard classic Goldberg Variations by Sarah Darling, Alex Fortes, and Dinnerstein. The show comes to Jordan Hall on Feb. 8th, and to Mechanics Hall in Worcester on Feb. 9th.
Longtime collaborators A Far Cry and Simone Dinnerstein both came to prominence in 2007, as part of a burst of musical energy that erupted in the Northeast Corridor as the Great Recession started to upend traditional arts structures. The 17-member A Far Cry formed with a countervailing idea: that the ensemble should have no fixed conductor, working as a self-conducted chamber orchestra whose players shared leadership. Dinnerstein took a then-novel approach with self-funding her own professional recording debut recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which propelled her to national acclaim as critics praised as “an utterly distinctive voice” (New York Times) and “a timeless, meditative, utterly audacious solo debut” (O, The Oprah Magazine). Although Dinnerstein now plays concerts and concertos across the world, the Goldberg Variations remains central for the pianist, with much-praised collaborations adding choreography (with Pam Tanowitz) and the re-imagined arrangement that Cornell and Boston will hear.
Basil Considine of the Twin Cities Arts Reader spoke with Alex Fortes and Sarah Darling of A Far Cry on the Goldberg arrangement, the dynamics of playing in A Far Cry, and the joys of collaborating with Simone Dinnerstein.
Basil: Why the Goldbergs?
(Sarah) The Goldberg Variations pose such a satisfying challenge to arrange — and let’s be honest, there are arrangements of them everywhere, from string trio to solo marimba —because Bach filled them with tantalizing… superstructures. More than just a set of variations; they evoke chorales, overtures, trio sonatas, jazz riffs, virtuosic tennis matches. Yu can pull apart the lines and see a three-dimensional structure. And not just that… when you put them all together, they combine into one of the most profoundly beautiful evenings of music, a sort of journey around the world and home again that leaves you profoundly shaken. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take up that gauntlet?
Here’s the thing that makes this collaboration with Simone so exciting, though; most arrangements are for another group — say, the string trio, while we wanted arrange the Variations for themselves. And that means celebrating the keyboard writing, and keeping it really central. That’s where Simone comes in. It’s a symbiotic relationship, we’re each doing things that we couldn’t do on our own.
Let’s say, for instance, that we’re talking about the fugue variation. We start that variation for string orchestra, putting the different fugal voices into different sections. You can hear what Bach is doing very clearly – but it just sounds like a lukewarm fugue for strings. Then the keyboard starts to take over, and you begin to hear that the entire complexity of the fugue is all captured in the hands of one player. It’s a way of opening everyone’s ears wide up, allowing them to hear the original with even more clarity.
And we’re planning on throwing our listeners a lot of curveballs.
How did the collaboration with Simone Dinnerstein come about?
(Sarah) Well, we contacted her — pretty much out of the blue! I remember sitting in my living room talking with her about the project around sunset, and the light was going in the room but I didn’t notice I was sitting in the dark until the phone call was over because I was so concentrated on representing the project well to her. I mean, we were talking to the Goldberg queen! But we also believed we had something interesting to share, and after a conversation full of great questions, she said yes! Since then, she’s been an integral part of the arranging and revising process — which, as you might imagine, is constantly underway because there’s really no one “right” way to arrange these pieces!
What’s an aspect of the collaboration with Dinnerstein that you especially enjoy? Why?
(Alex) Simone’s artistry is full of sincerity and humanity. The group has now collaborated with Simone close to two dozen times, and there has not been one time – in rehearsal or recording or performance – where she has not been fully committed to playing every single phrase with the utmost sensitivity, specificity, and imagination.
Simone makes sure to connect with every single musician on stage, whether you’re right next to her or in the back of the second violins. I think the intimacy of that connection is not just incredibly rewarding for her collaborators, but is also felt quite deeply by her audiences.
A Far Cry has a rotating leadership structure and no conductor. What leadership positions (if any) have you rotated through?
(Alex) A Far Cry rotates leadership in both the public-facing and internal aspects of artistic and administrative operations. Every Crier is expected to contribute in a relatively equal manner in all aspects.
(Sarah) Exactly – and so, besides being familiar with Viola 1, Viola 2, Viola 3, and Viola 4, I’ve also worked for the group as a marketing director, social media manager, blog writer, grantwriter, composer communications associate, and most recently, President. And then there were the years doing Box Office! What you learn is that every job inherent to the organization has real, creative, community value in its own way.
Do you have set assignments (analogous to a traditional orchestra’s stands/chair positions, like First Violin, First Stand) within the ensemble, or does this vary by the piece or leadership?
(Alex) Every piece has its own seating order and set of principals who lead the performance and rehearsal process. On the performance side, every Crier has played both first chair and last chair, often in the same concert.
Our administrator coordinates the leadership for each piece to balance an individual’s enthusiasm to lead the piece with the logistical concerns of rehearsal efficiency, and our commitment to egalitarianism.
What are some of the challenges and opportunities of this temporary/transient responsibility?
(Alex) This rotational model creates a certain amount of empathy for those in a different position. Often, it is harder to be a good follower than to be a good leader. Finding ways to empower your colleagues, whether they are the ones in the leadership role or you are the one in the leadership role, is probably the most important part of a successful rehearsal process and performance. This requires careful attention to verbal and nonverbal communication, and how to organize processes to allow for people to understand each other and unify their intent.
While this is most immediately apparent in the performance, it also applies to administration. We say that each Crier fulfills an artistic director role within a cohesive artistic process that incorporates the many voices of the group. In several seasons this rewarding challenge has been my primary job.
A Far Cry has a CD up for a GRAMMY this week entitled “Visions and Variations.” One might think you were obsessed with variations! Coincidence?
(Sarah) Indeed! But a fortunate one. “Visions and Variation”s required our learning 45 different pieces, many quite small, stretched out among three larger works. We learned, in that recording session, how to instantly move from one mood to another, and that has been amazingly helpful as we approach these 30 wonderfully distinct works. Variations demand a particular kind of total commitment; rather than grow into a character, you have to embody it all at once (not unlike writing a short story.) That sort of instant communion works well within A Far Cry, because we’re used to turning on a dime to follow and support each other anyway. What with the Goldberg concerts and the Grammy ceremony this weekend, our values will be pretty solidly on display!
Basil Considine is the Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Performing Arts Editor and its Senior Classical Music and Drama Critic; he remains an occasional contributor to The Boston Music Intelligencer.