The 57th Grammy Awards are this weekend in Los Angeles. Among the rock and pop stars on the red carpet will be more than a dozen members of A Far Cry, a unique, classical string ensemble based in Jamaica Plain.
As he talks about A Far Cry's Grammy nomination, Scott Nickrenz, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum's music director, glows like a proud parent. The 18-person chamber group is his “chamber orchestra-in-residence," which is something like the museum’s “house band.”
"Well, I’ll be cheering for them," he said, "all the way." (Update: The Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble award was won by Hilary Hahn and Cory Smythe for "In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.")
The story behind the recording that earned them their Grammy nod starts at the museum. The Far Cry musicians designed and performed a program back in 2012, “Dreams and Prayers," in the Gardner's new, state-of-the-art concert hall.
Nickrenz remembers the performance, but he reserves his serious gushing for A Far Cry’s philosophy and innovative structure.
He calls the group “rare” because it doesn't rely on a conductor or director. Instead, each musician gets a turn taking charge.
"It’s their turn to control the rehearsals, it’s their turn to create the program. They have a true democracy," he said. "And after all these years of knowing them I’ll be darned if I can figure out how they keep it going!"
Violinist Sarah Darling responded by echoing the question, "How do we keep the democracy going?" then joked, "No pressure here folks, no pressure."
Darling became a "crier" (as they call themselves) one year after the A Far Cry formed in 2007. She says three words drive the collective's ethos.
"OK: love, trust and respect," she said. "Essentially what the members of the group are saying to each other is: You can’t love somebody’s playing — that’s not enough. You can’t only trust a fellow musician — that’s not enough. You can’t merely respect somebody’s efforts. It only works if you put the three things together."
Combine those three words with the practice of empowering each individual musician to lead is what unifies A Far Cry, Darling says.
"You know, we marvel at it too because it’s crazy," she admitted, laughing. She also exclaimed, "It's very difficult!"
Violinist Miki Cloud curated the "Dreams and Prayers" program that A Far Cry ultimately transformed into the Grammy-nominated performance. She remembers when she pitched her original concept.
"It’s amazing to be able to come to a group of colleagues and friends with a kind of ‘out there’ idea," she said. "'Hey, let’s record music spanned over a thousand years, and all these pieces that have never been recorded before in this way, and that also touch on all of these religious topics.' "
Cloud wanted "Dream and Prayers" to explore music's relationship to the soul throughout history. It's filled with spiritual, mystical works including A Far Cry's rearrangement of Beethoven's "String Quartet No. 15," and a complex, contemporary piece by local composer Osvaldo Golijov, "The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind."
Golijov originally wrote the piece for a smaller ensemble, and the famed Kronos Quartet recorded that version first. But then Golijov expanded the score to accomodate A Far Cry's size. Clarinetist David Krakauer accompanied the posse of string players. The result is lush, dramatic and textured. Cloud says the total is more than the sum of its parts.
Her compatriot Megumi Stohs Lewis said, "Certain programs take you to new places — and this was one of them."
That's why the Criers wanted to share their program with a larger audience, so they decided they should start their own record label. A Far Cry has worked with a few record companies on their own, but they wanted the freedom to only have to answer to themselves. Before they recorded, though, the musicians took "Dreams and Prayers" on tour. (And just so you know, A Far Cry almost always performs standing up.)
Cloud said the live performances represented a major turning point for the future recording.
"We performed it in a packed church that was 80 degrees with the whole audience sweating along with us," she recalled. "We performed it in opera houses where we stood on the ground and had the audience sit around us like a mosh pit. Everywhere we went we felt this tremendous energy from the audience, and so when we finally went to record it we felt free with the material."
After raising $27,000 on Kickstarter to launch the new label, A Far Cry finally laid down the tracks for “Dreams and Prayers” at Sacred Heart Church in Fall River. Cloud said it's really hard to find special places like that to record in because these days there's too much external noise to capture clean audio. At one point she said it sounded like people were drag racing outside, but the ensemble was able to get what they needed.
This part of the journey is bittersweet, though, because the church is being decommissioned and the future of the building is uncertain, according to Cloud. She remembers how kind and generous the priests and parishioners were to her and the other criers.
Fast forward to this weekend when almost all of the 17 members of A Far Cry will be in LA for the Grammys. If they do win Lewis hopes the recognition helps the chamber ensemble reach even more people.
"We are so strongly rooted in Boston, and our home series is in Boston, and we love touring, but we want to spend as much time in Boston as possible as well, and I think having our recordings go out everywhere is one way we can do both," she said.
Nickrenz, of the Gardner museum, said he wants to host a party for his “house ensemble” when they get back from sunny California.