With new grant, Boston’s guerilla chamber orchestra plots orchestral future
Michael Unterman is a professional concert cellist, but his morning routine is decidedly computer-based.
Most days, the musician goes straight to his laptop to answer emails and write blog posts and program notes. As a member of the Boston chamber orchestra A Far Cry, Unterman’s job is far from the norm.
A Far Cry stands soundly as one of Boston’s most niche live classical music destinations. The group’s 18 musicians, who style themselves “The Criers,” can be heard performing in their native Jamaica Plain, as well as the Gardner museum, Jordan Hall, and St. John’s Church (to Unterman, St. John’s is their Fenway; “the pews stand in for bleachers”). They maintain a steady presence in Jamaica Plain with their storefront rehearsal space, which, during said rehearsals, is open to the public.
And it was recently announced that A Far Cry are up for two 2019 Grammy Awards—for Best Engineered Album, Classical and Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance—for their Visions And Variations project.
As such national props go to show, despite their small number and local setting, the self-conducted group packs diverse approaches and viewpoints that click beyond Boston. They’re versatile, willing to play “traditional” classical numbers, but also not afraid to infuse classic country in the form of “Red River Valley,” or even to unfold a fresh orchestral spin on some Daft Punk.
“It’s a kind of situation that I wish more people could experience,” Unterman said. “It’s one where you’re compelled to embrace a huge diversity of ideas from people on equal footing.”
This unique spirit helps to differentiate the cluster from other, more conservative and antiquated (read: elitist) orchestras in the area. And it factors into why they were selected as one of the 29 recipients of a coveted Barr-Klarman Arts Initiative grant back in October. The initiative has raised $25 million and will be disbursed to the selected organizations over the next six years.
“The philosophy behind the Barr-Klarman Initiative is a bit counter-intuitive, but brilliant,” Unterman explained. “Most grants provide money to complete a specific project or goal.
Sometimes, though, it creates a situation where, when the funding ends, the organization finds itself back at square one, or worse, has to scale back.”
The Barr and Klarman Family Foundations realized that a large number of arts groups were critically undercapitalized, with insufficient funds to work with.
The grant also allows for the spread of communal art, which is something that A Far Cry have already had their hands in for some time now. They’ve been engaged in a three-year partnership with Project STEP (a program that provides string instrument training to children and youth from underrepresented communities) and are working with local schools to promote the study of music, as well as issues of diversity.
“We’ve had programs based around themes of leadership, philosophy, food, ecology, mathematics, immigration, and feminism or that bring various musical styles into the mix, different types of fiddling, world music, rock, rap, jazz.”
With a $300,000 boost from Barr-Klarman, A Far Cry can continue playing on to Grammy pastures—with stops from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston to as far away as California—with confidence that things are okay on the homefront.
“A lot of arts organizations,” Unterman said, “are essentially one mishap or, for a performing arts organization, one ill-timed snowstorm away from serious trouble.”