NEW YORK — Thirty-four floors above the bustle of 67th Street, Andrew Cyr sits cross-legged on a sofa looking north over Manhattan. Beyond the immediate grid of the city blocks below and tall buildings that fan out before him, Cyr’s gaze takes him to the George Washington Bridge, across the Hudson River and into New Jersey, then back into the room where he sits.
It’s a spectacular view, courtesy of a friend who has turned her condo over to Cyr and his friends for an afternoon rehearsal.
Seated before him are four musicians from the chamber group known as the Metropolis Ensemble. With exhausting earnestness, the players work their way through a piano quartet that has never been played before. The music, written by recent Yale graduate Timothy Andres, is receiving its first rehearsal in preparation for its premiere a few nights later.
Performing on piano, violin, cello and viola, the musicians
talk among themselves to work out questions of tempo, triplets and rhythm.
As founder and artistic director of the Metropolis Ensemble, Cyr listens and observes, sometimes closing his eyes and keeping time with a nervous, bouncy leg.
“They have to find their own solutions and discover things themselves,” Cyr says during a rehearsal break. “This is something that is not in the repertory. This is not something they grew up with. They have to discover it and unveil it.”
The setting is one that he could hardly imagine growing up in Fort Kent in the far reaches of northern Maine. Cyr, who graduated with a music degree from Bates College in Lewiston in 1996, finds himself at the apex of Manhattan’s bustling new music scene.
His work involves making contemporary classical music accessible and appealing to the younger set of New Yorkers, who in a few hours hence will fill the bars and clubs of Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Soho and other trendy neighborhoods with their bravado and merrymaking.
With boldness and vision, Cyr’s Metropolis Ensemble is accomplishing what larger orchestras around the country can merely dream about: commissioning and performing new music for an eager and enthusiastic audience in non-traditional venues.
WANTED: EMERGING ARTISTS
The Metropolis Ensemble is a professional chamber orchestra based in New York City. Cyr, 36, founded it four years ago as a vehicle for talented emerging composers and performers. Many, like Andres, are recent graduates of music conservatories eager to make their way in the world of classical music.
They are accustomed to running into roadblocks and rejections. But Cyr offers them a green light to proceed.
For performers, the Metropolis provides an opportunity to live and perform in New York while building a resume and honing skills that will make them appealing to larger orchestras when they get older.
For composers, it gives them the chance to write music that will be performed for an audience eager to hear it. In four years, the Metropolis Ensemble has commissioned 30 pieces of new music, resulting in money in the pockets of the composers who wrote it and the musicians who performed it.
“The opportunity that Andrew has created is the most important thing a composer can have,” says Andres, 24. “You can write the best music, and that’s all well and good. But if no one can hear it, what’s the point?”
The ensemble — a loosely knit collective of three or four dozen musicians that Cyr assembles for regular concerts — has rapidly evolved, and lately is on an artistic roll.
Bloggers, critics and others are beginning to pay attention. This past winter, the Metropolis Ensemble released its first CD featuring performances of concertos by Israeli-American composer Avner Dorman. The disc is getting strong reviews. A quickly-organized February concert that raised $6,600 for Haiti relief also received an enthusiastic write-up in the New York Times.
Cyr, who only recently began taking a salary for his work with the ensemble, is staying busy trying to create sustainable momentum.
“We’ll see where it goes,” he says over lunch at landmarc, a contemporary French bistro at the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle.
“Someone was asking the other day, ‘What do you really want to do?’ I think I’m doing it. I’m working with the greatest young musicians in the world and the greatest young composers, and I get to pick the venues. This is it. This is my dream.”
IT ALL STARTED IN FORT KENT
The dream began in Fort Kent, although Cyr didn’t fully recognize it until he landed at Bates in the early 1990s. He grew up in the Catholic church, the son of schoolteachers. He played piano at church, and later learned to play the trumpet in the school band.
He maintained an interest in music throughout his youth, and was also involved in sports and other activities. As a youngster, music was no more a priority than any of his other interests, but it was always there, thanks largely to the church.
Fort Kent is isolated from the rest of Maine, let alone the larger world. In a remote place like Fort Kent, the church and school were the focus of almost all activities, particularly music. “Church was the one place you could experience music,” Cyr says.
Lewiston was something else altogether. Relative to Fort Kent, Lewiston represented the big city with vast cultural opportunities. Cyr absorbed them like a sponge.
He enrolled at Bates with the intention of studying pre-med, but switched his major to music and began setting his career path. He took classes in music theory and learned to play the organ.
One of Cyr’s music teachers, Marion Anderson, remembers him as inquisitive and different from most of his classmates. His intellectual curiosity extended far beyond the classroom.
“He was not one of our affluent students from Boston or New York. His family was well educated, but he grew up in a part of the country that was very isolated,” says Anderson, who now lives in Seattle.
“I remember seeing him on campus with a copy of the New York Times under his arm. He was one of the very few students at Bates who read the New York Times or the Boston Globe on a regular basis. Over coffee after class, I learned that he had a real passion for classical music and in particular opera.”
Anderson encouraged Cyr to pursue those interests, which he did vigorously. At the same time, another music professor, Bill Matthews, prodded him to explore his French heritage.
“He came to Bates with a Franco background, but didn’t speak any French at all,” Matthews recalls. “He began studying it and fell in love with it. Now he could understand what his grandparents were saying. I think that made him very pleased.”
For his senior thesis, Cyr researched Franco-American songs, recorded local French singers and transcribed their lyrics into English. Later, he studied at French National Conservatory in Lyon, France.
Cyr moved to New York in 2000 after living briefly in Portland and Montreal. While living in Maine, he worked at the Faucher Organ Co. in Biddeford, furthering his interest in and knowledge of the organ.
To this day, the organ is central to Cyr’s life. When not working on projects related to the Metropolis Ensemble, he works as a church organist in Hoboken, N.J.
‘IT’S ON THEIR iPODS’
Cyr’s vision for the Metropolis Ensemble began to evolve soon after he arrived in New York. His wife, Kate Gilmore (a 1997 Bates graduate), is a successful performance artist who has work in the current Whitney Biennial. Cyr accompanied her to her openings, and couldn’t help but notice the galleries filled with people just like him — young New Yorkers with an appetite for the arts. They would come out for the art openings, but not for classical music concerts.
He wondered why.
“They listen to classical music. It’s on their iPods. But they don’t go to Carnegie Hall,” he says. “That traditional classical music concert experience doesn’t fit into the rhythm of their life. So I decided to bring the music to them.”
Among other things, the Metropolis Ensemble has created its niche by staging performances in non-traditional venues such as nightclubs. The ensemble has become a regular partner with the Greenwich Village club (Le) Poisson Rouge, which books a variety of performers, including classical musicians.
People in the audience eat and drink during the performance, creating a social atmosphere. The musicians mingle before and after performances, breaking down the barrier and aura, real or perceived, that often exist between audience and players.
Cyr’s idea is that classical music can encourage social interaction just as rock ‘n’ roll does, without the formal trappings of a traditional concert experience.
Beyond the concerts, the Metropolis Ensemble’s Web site (www.metropolisensemble.org) is highly interactive and technically savvy. The concerts are available online after the event, and there are video links, Twitter feeds and iTunes downloads.
The central work of the Metropolis Ensemble involves creating opportunities for musicians and composers while building new audiences. In doing so, the ensemble attempts to transform the relationships among the music, artists and audiences, Cyr says. The work becomes community-based and collaborative by nature, with equal participation by the musicians and the audience.
Cyr is the wizard who makes it work. He neither writes nor performs. Sometimes he conducts the ensemble when a conductor is necessary. But mostly he provides the vision by bringing people together.
He describes his job as part curator, part conductor and part producer.
“I create the ideal formats for new music to exist,” Cyr says. “The Metropolis is trying to be a voice within this (classical music) ecosystem here. It’s a different model and a different way of approaching music and audience-building too. We do small events that grow into big things.”
THE NEXT GENERATION
Perhaps what distinguishes the Metropolis the most, though, is its commitment to new music. Cyr embraces the notion that the future of classical music rests in its young composers.
The new generation of composers is influenced by a completely different set of musical values, schools of thought and source material than its predecessors.
If not given an opportunity to stretch themselves, those composers will be stifled, Cyr says.
It’s enormously difficult for young composers to send their music out in the world, said Andres, the Yale graduate whose music the Metropolis is rehearsing in the high-rise condo. “Most conductors tack on a random contemporary piece at the end of a program,” he says. “Andrew reverses that process. Andrew’s idea is to start the program with pieces of new music and work from there. It’s really a novel approach.”
It’s also risky. Cyr and Metropolis have no blueprint for their adventure. Every concert is a new experience, and in many ways also an experiment. But it appears to be working. The concerts sell out routinely, and Metropolis is growing.
It is still a modest nonprofit arts organization with a miniscule budget of $200,000. But Cyr is actively recruiting new board members to join the organization and foster its growth.
One of those board members is June Wu, whose condominium Cyr has taken over for the rehearsal. She is an assistant professor of surgery at Columbia University, and an avid supporter of classical music.
She met Cyr at a house concert that she hosted. He invited her to a Metropolis event, and Wu’s first instinct was to decline. “I hated new music,” she says. “But I told myself, ‘Be nice. Be polite.’ “
Wu showed up and was pleasantly surprised. Through what became her regular attendance at Metropolis concerts, Cyr taught Wu how to appreciate new music.
She’s now the ensemble’s biggest advocate.
“Andrew brings something that is fresh and new, and allows people to experience classical music in a fun and non-threatening way,” Wu says. “He understands where classical music is going next. He commissions composers using new technology, which makes sense.
“If you look at his audience, they are the demographic that Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall are trying to reach — people in their 20s and 30s who would be comfortable at a rock concert. The establishment has a lot to learn from Andrew.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: