On an Urban Scale: Andrew Cyr ’96 and Metropolis Ensemble make contemporary classical music hip and accessible

By Bob Keyes

Andrew Cyr ’96 can only smile and giggle.

It’s a little after two o’clock, and the upscale Café on the Beauty Level at Bergdorf Goodman is swimming with fashionable women glammed up in makeup, fur, and heel.

Metropolis Ensemble founder and artistic director Andrew Cyr ’96 is at the apex of Manhattan’s bustling new-music scene. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

Cyr sheepishly rises for a handshake and an awkward hug. He apologizes for choosing a restaurant that’s straight out of Sex and the City. “I asked at a board meeting this morning where I should meet for lunch, and two women recommended Bergdorf Goodman: ‘They have the best sandwiches.’”

Yet, the choice works. Cyr has much to celebrate these days, and this modish spot on Fifth Avenue seems the place to catch his breath, relax, and allow himself to be fawned over. He orders a glass of water with lemon and a bowl of split pea soup, and saves room for dessert.

Newly honored with a Grammy Award nomination, Cyr finds himself at the apex of Manhattan’s bustling new-music scene. At age 37, he is succeeding at what music directors at orchestras around the country have been trying to figure out for years: How to make contemporary classical music hip and accessible to a range of listeners, especially young people.

“They listen to classical music. It’s on their iPods. But they don’t go to Carnegie Hall.”

Cyr is founder and artistic director of Metropolis Ensemble, a chamber orchestra and ensemble that commissions and performs new music for eager and enthusiastic audiences in nontraditional venues around Manhattan.

Performing about once a month, Metropolis seeks venues that promote interaction and community among musicians and the audience. One month’s venue might be a bar, while the next might be Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center, where Metropolis performed Chinese composer Tan Dun’s Martial Arts Trilogy in August — “a splashy multimedia event” performed with “skill and exuberance,” The New York Times noted.

The loose-knit group of a few dozen composers and musicians is clearly getting noticed in the city, and national exposure came last year with Metropolis’ multiple Grammy nominations. Cyr didn’t win, but had a blast at the ceremony in Los Angeles in February.

“It was an orgy in self-congratulations. We were all telling each other how great we are,” he says.

Cyr received a nomination as best conductor, and mandolinist Avi Avital as best soloist, for their work on Avner Dorman’s Concertos, the first studio album from Metropolis Ensemble. David Frost, who produced the disc, won the 2011 Grammy for Producer of the Year.

For Cyr, the best part is that people are responding. The audiences are fervent, and growing. The evening before our lunch, Metropolis Ensemble raised four times its financial goal at a benefit event, its first major public event since the Grammys. Cyr was flabbergasted. “It’s a big moment for us, a real endorsement from the people who support us,” he said over lunch. “We just tripled our budget overnight.”

Andrew Cyr conducts a Metropolis Ensemble concert featuring the premiere of an electro-acoustic remix of John Corigliano’s Three Hallucinations, based on his Academy Award-nominated film score to Altered States.

His success with such a bold venture speaks to his training at Bates. He often cites the influence of Bates music professors Marion Anderson and Bill Matthews, who encouraged him to think big.

“They taught me how to ask questions,” Cyr says. “They are my mentors and guides, and important people to me. I looked up to them, and they taught me. When I failed, they helped me get back up. I was a young person in college. I was not a straight-A student. They helped me at every turn.”

Anderson remembers Cyr for his intellectual curiosity. “Over coffee after class, I learned that he had a real passion for classical music and, in particular, opera,” says Anderson, who retired in 2005 and now lives in Seattle.

Anderson encouraged Cyr to pursue those interests, and the student did so vigorously, eventually changing his major from pre-med to music. Meanwhile, Matthews prodded Cyr — a native of the far northern Maine town of Fort Kent, where more than half the residents speak French at home — to explore his own French heritage. For his senior thesis, Cyr researched Franco-American songs, recorded local French singers, and transcribed their lyrics into English. Later, he studied in France.

He moved to New York in 2000 and is married to Kate Gilmore ’97, an acclaimed artist herself, in the performance and video realm (“Break on Through,” Summer 2009). They live in Brooklyn.

Cyr’s vision for the Metropolis Ensemble began to evolve as he accompanied Gilmore to art openings. He noticed the galleries were filled with people just like him — young New Yorkers with an appetite for the arts. They come out for art openings, but not for classical music.

“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.”

Bates roots run deep in Metropolis Ensemble. Mikhail Iliev ’96 provided key legal advice and is now the ensemble’s treasurer. Sound engineer Nils van Otterloo ’96 helped to record early Metropolis concerts. And videographer Timothy Bakland ’96 has captured concert footage.

With Bates friends and others under his wings, Cyr learned, on the fly, how to transform a performing arts start-up into an active arts-presenting organization in a city chock full of them.

While good things may come from the Grammy nod, all will have to be earned. “It changes everything and it changes nothing,” he says. “We still have to do everything we do, although it should open us up to donors and allow us to communicate our message to a larger community.”

In one of those “if you can make it in New York” moments, Cyr mentions an idea of starting a festival in China to serve the country’s growing demand for music programming.

“Did you know there are 40 million piano students in China?” he asks.

Bob Keyes writes about the arts for The Portland Press Herald and Maine Sunday Telegram.


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