One chamber orchestra that has been making a splash in New York’s contemporary classical arena is the Metropolis Ensemble. Established in 2006 by artistic director Andrew Cyr with the mission of nurturing young and emerging composers and performers, Metropolis has performed in venues from the Chelsea Art Museum and Greenwich Village’s Le Poisson Rouge to the Angel Orensanz Center on the Lower East Side and an entire brownstone building in Brooklyn. An abbreviated list of composers whose works Metropolis has performed includes Timo Andres, Enrico Chapela, Anna Clyne, Avner Dorman, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Dun Yun—as well as Mozart, Brahms, and Schumann.
Flexibility is at the core of what Metropolis does. They have performed with as little as one and as many as 50 musicians. They have played in clubs, standing up when there was no room to seat the orchestra, and in spaces where the audience was invited to carry their own chairs to any spot in the hall. They do not plan seasons in advance, and only announce concerts as everything begins to jell for each program. (They have announced their September 15 season-opening “Renderings” program at Angel Orensanz, which features world premieres by resident composers Timothy Andres, Vivian Fung, and Ray Lustig—plus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 26, with Andres as soloist.)
In early August, we caught up with artistic director Andrew Cyr just before Metropolis was set to perform Tan Dun’s Martial Arts Trilogy—three concertos based on film the films Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; The Banquet; and Hero, accompanied by film footage—with the Collegiate Chorale in a free concert led by the composer at the Damrosch Park Bandshell during Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors Festival on August 12.
Jennifer Melick: Could you tell us a little about how Metropolis got started?
Andrew Cyr: Sure. I firmly believe that composers today have a lot to say, and that musicians and artists and audiences can all gather to experience something new. There’s this idea that classical music ground to a halt a little bit, around 18-something, but I believe in the notion of continual evolution and progress. There are so few opportunities for young composers especially. So the idea is to create new entry points for them, and also to have a platform for young and emerging composers to work with their contemporaries, who are also just coming out of school and looking at a landscape that’s a lot different from when they started school; the industry has changed so much.
Melick: Is new music something you’ve always been interested in?
Cyr: Not really. I’m kind of a latecomer to new music. I think many musicians are, because when you study music, you study the past, repertoire—that’s how you learn your instrument. You don’t learn your instrument by studying emerging composers, or by studying even contemporary composers, you learn by studying Bach and Mozart and all the stuff that’s really grounded in the tradition. I was very much grounded in that; I played trumpet, I was an organist and choral conductor.
When I started thinking about a career as a conductor, I looked around, and was like, “No one my age is going to concerts.” It was really sad, because this music that I love so much is just not being presented in ways that are relevant to a lot of my friends who work in other fields—even within the creative arts. My wife is an artist, and I meet a lot of visual artists and architects and other creative types. They don’t go to Carnegie Hall, because the programming is just not really relevant to their lives. That doesn’t mean the music’s not great, but it’s just not compelling to them. And that was really upsetting to me. So I was kind of like, “Well, maybe we really need to weave in contemporary music more creatively so that we will generate more curiosity.” I did it as a way to address audience problems, and then I found it was so fascinating to work with living composers: it was awesome! They pour so much of their entire being into these compositions, and they’re trying to achieve so much, it was really inspiring. To be part of the process of creating a new work from start to finish, and imagining it being part of a whole evening that has an arc, that’s not just randomly programmed but that really connects with everything else, that was my intuition about how to do this. More and more, the ensemble turned in that direction. We also do a lot of performances in different types of venues, a little bit more social and more laid-back. I’d say the combination of all those things has really kind of helped us to build an awesome community.
“I tend to stay away from venues that have fixed seating, but it depends on the project. As each project develops, the venues and where the project is going to go are part of that early conversation with the composers, and the size of the ensemble.” Andrew Cyr
Melick: You perform in a wide variety of spaces. How do you select venues?
Cyr: I tend to stay away from venues that have fixed seating, but really it depends on the project. As each project develops, the venues and where the project is going to go are part of that early conversation with the composers, and the size of the ensemble. We’re flexible, so we can be one or we can be 50. I might say, this project here is going to be perfect for Le Poisson Rouge because we’ll use their great sound system, for instance. But some projects lend themselves more to a more natural acoustic, so I’ll find a place like Angel Orensanz, or maybe a museum. Some things work really well in small spaces, just to get a really direct audience connection, to get a close kind of circuit.
Melick: How did you come to be performing Tan Dun’s Martial Arts Trilogy for the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival in August?
Cyr: It came about as part of a larger conversation I had been having with Tan Dun about a variety of projects in the future, both here and in New York and in Shanghai—we hadn’t really gotten down to specifics about what that was going to be. He is particularly interested in young people and in technology, and we do a lot of projects with technology and with electronica, and with different types of audience experiences. Somehow he learned about us and wanted to work on something with us. Then he got offered this Lincoln Center performance of his Martial Arts Trilogy, and he asked if we would like to play.
Melick: Tan Dun has been touring his Martial Arts Trilogy this summer—in addition to Lincoln Center, it is being performed by the San Diego Symphony and National Symphony Orchestra. All the performances feature the same visuals—have you seen them?
Cyr: Some of them. We had a semi-private event in June in New York, to explain Tan Dun’s philosophy behind how he writes for film, and how it connects with his vision of opera. Basically there are a lot of really intense action scenes in the three films that have no dialogue—kind of like set pieces, so there’s a lot of that is obviously set to music. Some of the music is really iconic, like from Crouching Tiger, he uses a lot of Peking drumming, for example. A lot of that goes into these concerti—each movement is a concerto with a different solo instrument—so it’s going to be scenes like that that are shown while we’re doing the three concerti.
“I feel strongly that classical music should be affordable and accessible. At any one of our concerts you can get a great seat for $20. We call that like a yuppie food stamp, a twenty-dollar bill! Those seats sell out really quickly. We do free concerts when we can—it’s important to have that as part of what we do.”- Andrew Cyr
Melick: Is there someone at the controls making sure that the film matches up to your performance of the music, or vice versa?
Cyr: Tan Dun is conducting—it’s not going to be on a click track. But it’s arranged such that there’s enough margin of error so that one tempo from one night to the next is not all that different. It’s not synched quite as precisely as you would in the actual film score, so it’s more “inspired by,” more like a collage.
Melick: Is this one of the rare times that you’re not conducting your own group, or does that happen from time to time?
Cyr: It’s pretty rare—but I think in the case of a composer-conductor it’s really cool for the musicians to work in a collaborative way with Tan Dun. Or imagine if Esa-Pekka wanted to work with us! I mean, it’s awesome! It’s going to be a great experience for all of us to develop a relationship with Tan Dun as a musician, not just as a composer.
Melick: You spoke about Metropolis nurturing younger and emerging composers, but Tan Dun is more established, so he could serve a different role for you.
Cyr: That’s exactly what our discussions have been about, how Tan Dun can collaborate with young composers we are working with, and how we can do something cool and interesting together. That was actually the substance of our original conversations. We’re not very rigid in our approach—we focus on emerging composers, but we also do Mozart! We just want to create a context that is very rich for our composers to work in. If we were just limited to young composers or emerging composers, it wouldn’t serve them very well. I want the ecosystem they’re working in to be diverse.
Melick: I was happy to see your 2010 Naxos recording of works by Avner Dorman got a Grammy nomination. Do you plan to work with him again?
Cyr: Oh yeah, definitely. He’s very busy now! I’ve been working with Avner so long. We started talking about that recording project in 2006, to do the mandolin concerto. I knew he had a lot of commissions in the works, but a lot of it was up in the air. It’s been fun to see him really get some traction.
Melick: You do a fair number of free or mostly free concerts. How you feel about the cost of concert tickets?
Cyr: I feel strongly that classical music should be affordable and accessible. At any one of our concerts you can get a great seat for $20. We call that like a yuppie food stamp, a twenty-dollar bill! Those seats sell out really quickly, but if you’re on the mailing list you can get them. We do free concerts when we can—we don’t do that as a rule, but I think it’s important to have that as part of what we do. We always have a few every season.
Melick: Your ensemble is flexible, but is there a core group of New York-based musicians? How do you find your musicians?
Cyr: A core group has emerged over the past few years. At first, the idea was just to find the very best players coming out of school. Some people have moved on, taken principal positions in orchestras, taken management positions or become soloists. Some move away to other cities. But I’d say there’s probably 15 or 17 core players that are our principal go-to people, who really love working with young composers. There is still a fair amount of turnover, because people’s lives are in flux, they’re taking auditions, doing different things: that’s what it takes to survive.
Melick: Roughly how many programs do you try to do in a given year? Does it vary?
Cyr: Yeah. We do about 6 to 12 concerts a year, and we don’t announce the season in a traditional sense. What I do is kind of like cooking: When the dish is done, we announce—dinner. A lot of projects involve multiple commissions that are meant to go together. I’m not programming things three years in advance. We have many projects that are always in development. When one starts to get ready, I announce it and put it together. There’s no real pattern to our concerts. I think our audiences like that. Because we change a lot and go to different venues, no season is the same from one to the next.
Melick: How has fundraising been for Metropolis during this wild couple of years?
Cyr: It’s a very challenging environment, but we’re very fortunate that we’ve been growing every year. I think it’s because our audience base is pretty diverse, so there’s a mix of people that together can really help grow the ensemble. It’s a ton of work. We’ve been very careful not to grow too quickly, and we’re very careful with our resources. We also have a lot of people who are very passionate [about Metropolis], and we have a great board of directors. They really want this to become an institution, and we’re going in that direction, and we’re building slowly and building things that will allow us to survive. Our business model is not, “We hope to get hired by X Festival.” We want to do everything ourselves. If new opportunities come up, that’s a bonus. We’re trying to build our own self-sustaining community, and that requires a lot of independence, and we’re striking out on our own, and doing our own thing.
Melick: Have you been actively involved with Metropolis’s fundraising partnerships with other nonprofits?
Cyr: Yeah. With our education programs, we don’t have the staff to run them on our own, so we sought partnerships with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute. We looked at offering something at various public schools, but in the end we partnered with a nonprofit that was already working with a public school, and that enabled us to just go in and do music. Then when the earthquake hit in Haiti, I felt compelled to do something—the images were horrific. My wife and I were like, “What can we do? We can’t write a check, we’re not rich.” Then I thought that maybe we could do a concert. And Le Poisson Rouge donated space to us, and the musicians donated their services. We ended up donating almost $7,000 for Partners in Health. The musicians loved the project and want to do something like that again, so we’re all talking about what we can do next. We might go back to Partners in Health, or maybe choose another charity. We’ve also worked with the Teak Fellowship, which helps underprivileged New York City kids with great test scores get into good high schools and colleges. We partner with them and provide teacher assistance because they don’t have any arts programming.
Melick: I noticed most of your musicians were performing while standing at your Trinity Church concert in spring of 2010. Is that customary?
Cyr: No. The stage and proscenium at Trinity is really small, and we couldn’t fit; we would have had to bring in a staging company to build a stage, and we couldn’t afford it. So, I thought, we’ll just have the orchestra be parterre. [Composer] Timo [Andres, whose works were performed on the program] realized that people in the back of the audience at Trinity weren’t going to be able to see anything. We asked the players to stand, and they said, sure. So we did it that way. Later that day we did a second concert of the same repertoire in Angel Orensanz, and I thought maybe we could just set up the hall in Angel Orensanz in rows, but just have piles of chairs, and let people take their chairs and put them anywhere. We called it “Take a Seat,” and we explained it, and people loved it. We even let them take it behind the orchestra if they wanted to, and so people were actually on the stage, looking down. People moved chairs so they had a different vantage point between the pieces. You would think it would cause chaos, but it didn’t. It was fascinating that the audience got into it. So it came out of necessity, but then it inspired something that was quite creative in the end.
Melick: Any high points or memories in your five years with Metropolis that you would like to share?
Cyr: I don’t have a good answer, because you know what happens? Every project, the project I’m working on now, becomes my favorite project. And then I get really sad when it’s over. Then by the next project, I’m like, “That was the best project! This is so much fun I don’t want it to end!” and I’m sad when it’s over. One project that was kind of off the beaten path was called Brownstone, where we commissioned a composer to write a piece for a whole brownstone building. People could just kind of wander through. It was a really neat project, because it was all designed to go together, but it was also a composition so it had an arc—it wasn’t just aleatoric. Speakers were installed in the walls, and you could even go outside and hear the outside and hear the sounds coming from all the floors and all the windows.
Melick: Do you archive recordings of your concerts?
Cyr: We do. On our concerts page, we have a whole media library—for each concert there’s a video tab and an audio tab. It’s also housed on Vimeo. Video editing is super-expensive, so I do it myself, so I’m always behind. We try to document everything, because the concerts live on. Thousands of people watch them! And it’s fantastic for the players and the composers, because their works live on.
Melick: Could you tell us a little bit about the work you do in public schools?
Cyr: We have this program called Youth Works, kind of like our umbrella program for all our education initiatives. So we work with Teak, and we have programs at P.S. 11, and with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Institute, and at the GrandParent Family Apartments in the Bronx. Each initiative is a little bit different. We select a composer every year who proposes various kinds of projects to me and to our hosts. Sometimes we’re teaching music creativity to young children, sometimes we’re actually performing concerts at the schools. Some of the more advanced students at P.S. 11 wrote works, which we arranged for chamber orchestra and performed. We’ve produced albums; we did a hip-hop album that we turned into an EP at Teak.
Melick: Who is your current composer-fellow?
Cyr: Brad Balliett. This is going to be his second year. Some composer-fellows have stayed for one year, sometimes for two. Brad has been great. We commissioned a hip-hop opera from him that we did this year as part of the MATA festival, an adaptation of Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress that was pretty wild.
Melick: Does Metropolis more or less fill your time, or is it only a part of what you do?
Cyr: Oh, it’s pretty much 24/7!