My not so normal week with A Far Cry

Some powerful thoughts on the significance of our "Pau" concert cycle, by one of our NEC Fellows, Alyssa Wang. 

I’ve been a violinist for basically my whole life, so I’m familiar with a typical week in the life of a musician. We are experts at scheduling back-to-back rehearsals and showing up to at least one of them with a pencil. We’re used to forgetting a meal every now and then, and making up for it at the post-concert reception. We’re quite fast walkers when we want to be. This is a normal week. But I know my friends in A Far Cry and I can say that the week of preparation for November 11th’s Jordan Hall concert was anything but normal—because that week of preparation was also the week of America’s presidential election.

When I began to write this post, I did so with trepidation. The wrong words could make the retelling of my time with A Far Cry seem too politically opinionated or one-sided. It was also important that I somehow fit in some details of how amazing it was to experience the inner workings of a community like A Far Cry. And while I don’t wish to increase the divisiveness that has defined this election season, I must stand by my belief that the world of music cannot and should not be separated from current events—including politics. Our week of rehearsals was greatly affected by Tuesday’s Election Day, and we cannot pretend otherwise. I don’t think I could separate the two events even if I wanted to. But rather than describe the political views of the artistic community, I would like to explain what the combination of these two worlds did for me in the days following the election and beyond.

To start, I’m not actually a member of A Far Cry—I’m one of New England Conservatory’s student fellows. But I’ve been following A Far Cry for a few years, since before I moved to Boston to continue my studies in violin. What has always struck me about their playing is the magnitude of their energy, dedication, and innovation. You can see it through how they move, as a unit and with freedom. One of the ways they break tradition is by standing in concerts—in rehearsals, too, as my poor legs were about to find out. Walking into their rehearsal space in JP for the first time on Monday was surreal because the faces I saw were faces I already knew. (I kept it cool, though.) On the menu for Friday were a variety of works that are connected in some way to the Catalonian cello legend, Pablo Casals. There was the Schumann Cello Concerto, which he famously recorded, played by Casals’ own godson, Lluís Claret. Several pieces on the concert were composed and championed by Casals. The finale of the evening was the devilish Glosses by Ginastera, which overlaid Catalonian grooves with hair-raising, imaginative sound effects.

What began as a creative theme tying together a concert program became something much more relevant following Tuesday’s election. Pablo Casals was famous for using his music to speak out for justice. At one point he refused to perform in public as a statement of his fierce opposition to the rule of Spanish dictator, Francisco Franco. Our relationship with Casals would soon become more relevant than any of us could have predicted, and “music as a voice for justice” is a phrase that would echo through my mind for the rest of the week.

Monday was quite normal. We rehearsed all day in their cozy JP space located next-door to a shop that was so fond of incense that I could often smell it during rehearsals. The Criers, as they’re called, happily greeted each other in the early morning with coffee and tea in hand. A variety of stands were assembled amidst casual talk and laughter, and some sheet music was passed around. I noticed immediately how many of them took the time to welcome me. There was a lot more smiling than I expected. It couldn’t be more obvious: this was a community.

It turns out, it was a community made up of very cool people. There really isn’t another word for it. Everything from their Crier slang to how they played their instruments was just…cool. Playing with them involved lots of classical music head banging and jowl shaking. It was like being caught in an ocean wave. All I had to do to fit in was let myself get swept up in it all. Through the week I started picking up on little Crier colloquialisms. Instead of saying, “let’s run it,” when they wanted to play a piece from start to finish, they often said, “let’s lay it down.” “Open up the floor,” meant anyone in the ensemble could request specific spots to improve. They liked to endearingly call each other “chefs”, which alluded to everyone’s own imagined recipe for making a piece successful.

On Tuesday, November 8, we rehearsed as normal, although with a palpable buzz in the air that mirrored the whole country. We were nervous about Election Day, but busy enough to not notice too much. It was Wednesday that changed everything.

The morning after the election was surreal. I walked into the rehearsal space and no one smiled. Hardly anyone spoke, and when they did, it was with a kind of heaviness. I had trouble concentrating. What good was a little rehearsal when there were whole communities of people across the country now fearful of discrimination, deportation, and hate crimes? We assembled into our proper places. Lluís wanted to do a run through of Schumann Cello Concerto. We tuned, and no one talked, and we waited to start the piece. It took a while for the first violin to give us the cue because he was holding back tears. It might have been that moment when I understood how deeply this day would affect us. When it was time, he motioned his violin upwards in the tempo of the opening and the music began. I will never forget what happened next.

This wasn’t the first time we had played the concerto, but it was the only time it would feel like this. Lluís sang with his cello above the undulating harmonies of the opening. It felt as if something were compressing my chest. It hurt and the music seemed to understand that. Every change in harmony, every sorrowful slide in the cello, every exclamation—it all seemed so relevant. We were playing our grievances. And then, about half way through, the change began. The music started giving back to us. As we passed through the achingly beautiful second movement and angst-filled third movement, I could feel the grip that was clenching my insides begin to loosen. Hearing the pain in the music and expressing it with my own hands was therapeutic, like every stroke of my bow was somehow erasing a piece of that darkness. I felt as though I was being healed.

By the time we finished running the concerto I felt like an entirely different person. I was hopeful, grateful, humbled. Suddenly, it was easy to believe that everything was going to be all right. Anything that was going to come our way, we could take it. It was like our instruments had sucked up the sorrow straight through our fingers. It took me a few days to realize this, but I had never had an experience like this with music before in my life. Until then, I had never known what it felt like to need relief so badly and to be given it so viscerally by music.

It was from that moment on that A Far Cry carried on with different purpose. Our rehearsals weren’t just about making good quality music, they were about making our voices heard. We had something truly relevant to say now. As the concert date approached there were dramatic increases of hate crimes reported. Some of my own friends, minorities and women, were targets of verbal harassment on the streets by supporters of the winning candidate. So we practiced harder.

On Friday, we played a concert with different significance than any concert I had ever played up until that point. I remember walking out onto that stage and feeling like we had an extremely important job to do. The audience, too, was listening to us differently. I realized that we weren’t just a voice for us, but a voice for the people who came to see us. As we played that night, I remember being consciously aware at every moment that someone different from me was listening. Someone of a different race, a different religion, a different gender, different life experiences. And yet we were all listening to the same music. The concert went well, but perfection was not the number one priority that night. That night we were healers. We were orators. We were unifiers. We were exactly what so many of us needed.

I learned some important lessons during my not so normal week with A Far Cry. I learned that amidst times of uncertainty and anger there will be times of joy and purpose and togetherness. I was reminded again of the power of artistic voices in society. Our role in Boston that week became so much more than just entertainment because we had something to say and everything to give. I was reminded of how thankful I am to be a musician and how lucky we are to have music as a means of expression. We were able to provide our audience with something beautiful in a week filled with ugliness. Knowing that gives me purpose. My week with A Far Cry was exhilarating, painful, and unimaginably meaningful. I got to play music with genuinely good people and innovative artists. And through it all I was reminded that we all have music as a voice for justice, and we should use it to make something beautiful when people need it the most.