PERFECT FIT The orchestra in residence at the Isabella Gardner Museum since 2009, A Far Cry and its 17 members are the ideal size for the ISG's brand-new jewel-box concert hall.
Barely three weeks after sharing a stage with Yo-Yo Ma, A Far Cry plays Royale, bathed in blue and red rock-club lights. This concert is part of the Ecstatic Music Festival, a weeklong program devised by New York composer Judd Greenstein to showcase "post-classical" music. Greenstein has paired the Criers with the bands Slow Six and This Will Destroy You. They'll play the program at Royale tonight and head down to Merkin Hall in Manhattan for a second show tomorrow (LISTEN: Audio from the Merkin show).
There's a long and not entirely successful history of rock/classical crossovers, from the Kronos Quartet working with Elvis Costello to the Vitamin String Quartet covering Lady Gaga. At its worst, it ends up as a novelty act, a kind of disavowal that classical can be as powerful as rock. Greenstein's festival is trying to prove the opposite.
"Where I found my own voice was at the intersection of classical and non-classical," Greenstein says. He remembers shopping at record stores — back when there were record stores — where the classical section was separated by a glass wall. "I don't see there should be a distinction," he says. "The world of music I want to live in as a composer is one where there isn't a walled-off area of music."
So here are the Criers, crowded onto Royale's stage. They're playing Steve Reich's Triple Quartet, a modern piece with a repetitious, rhythmic drive, one they've played before. In the warm acoustic womb of NEC's Jordan Hall, the music has a hypnotic pull; you listen to it, and then you stop listening, and then shapes and colors start to build out of the repeated sounds.
But it sounds like crap in Royale. The Criers are playing into microphones, and the balance is off, and the result is a weird filtered mix where you can hear too many violins and not enough cellos. The audience is cool, though. They're into ambient, Eno-esque stuff, and they're willing to give A Far Cry a go. It's better when they're playing with the bands. By the time the show ends, around midnight, the Criers's wall of sound has melded with This Will Destroy You's ringing chords, and the crowd is slowly headbanging along.
The next morning, the players stagger out of bed to road-trip down to NYC. I ride along with Unterman and guest musicians Andrew Larsen and Michael Levin in a rented van. When they realize, en route, that I've never listened to Radiohead's Kid A, they insist on playing it for me in its entirety. (Thom Yorke is also on A Far Cry's celebrity list.)
Merkin Hall, in the Kaufman Center, is a totally different venue than Royale; while last night's show placed a classical outfit on a rock stage, tonight the bands are the ones who look out of place in the small, elegant auditorium. The crowd is different, too: half those same Eno-head hipsters, half middle-aged patrons of the arts. When Slow Six start their set, two little old ladies get up and leave in alarm.
A Far Cry isn't miked, and so the Reich can build its power. It's tricky, the kind of piece an unconducted orchestra shouldn't be able to perform; they nail it. The sound system also does huge favors for their amplified sets with Slow Six and This Will Destroy You. I can actually hear the orchestra playing the parts Slow Six's frontman, Christopher Tignor, has composed for them, and I realize for the first time that they're not just backing up the band— they're not a "string section." Tignor has written a complex duet for rock band and orchestra, and when the two sing out together the music grows into an all-powerful wave.
There's an expedition afterward to a sake bar. Lewis invites the rock bands along, but they opt to go home early. So about half of the Criers pile into Irons's car and head out into the alcoholic New York night.
They pass Julliard, the esteemed classical-music institute. "Jailyard!" they cry. Unterman is planning to audition there in March, but he's still not sure what he'd do if he got in. "Don't do it," his colleagues say. "You don't need them."