At Home with “Brownstone”: the Metropolis Ensemble Celebrates Ten Years
By Molly McArdle
The sound reverberates off the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, the chandeliers, the hardwood floors. Violins, drums, a piano fill the Gilded Age mansion’s parlor on 5th Avenue, now the home of the American Irish Historical Society. In a connecting room, in between an oyster bar and a bar-bar, are the woodwinds. I stand looking at the oboist for the longest time—I used to play oboe. Walking down the fan of marble steps into the subdued, grotto-like lobby, a xylophone note greets each footstep. Alone there, it echoes off the polished stone, crystalline and otherworldly. Upstairs, above the parlor floor, is another wood-paneled room with bar. A violinist stands sawing, beautifully, in the middle of a hushed crowd. It’s as if someone pressed pause on normal life, and play on something considerably more sublime.
“Brownstone,” a fifteen-minute work by composer Jakub Ciupinski, first premiered in an actual brownstone—not a historic mansion—in 2010. Commissioned by the Metropolis Ensemble, it was first inspired by board member and artist Jennifer Salomon, who wanted to host a private concert in her Brooklyn home, one which stretched out over the house’s three floors. Since then, as Metropolis artistic director Andrew Cyr describes it, the piece has “snowballed into a roving series and taken a life on its own.” Part of that life is what’s happening at the American Irish Historical Society. Another is a like-minded event taking place next week, on September 27, at the Ensemble’s 10th anniversary party, in which a roving group of musicians and artists will put on a “cascading” series of art and musical performances—some improvised, others planned.
Both events, the “Brownstone” series and the anniversary celebration, highlight what the Metropolis Ensemble has done best for the past decade: commission new classical work and push at the boundaries of its performance. A professional chamber orchestra, the New York-based Ensemble draws from a deep bench of contemporary composers and performers. The composers it’s brought into the fold alone have racked up awards such as the Pulitzer Prize, the Rome Prize, and a Guggenhem Fellowship. Cyr, who has been nominated for a Grammy for his conducting work, has led the group at Lincoln Center, BAM, the Prospect Park bandshell during Celebrate Brooklyn!, on NPR, and even on Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night. Not too bad for classic musicians, especially a group armed with newly minted works. But beyond these accolades, the Metropolis Ensemble achieves something of a different sort, rare and alchemical. They make their brand of music look cool.
“Collaboration has been at the center of this project since its inception,” Cyr says of “Brownstone.” Though it started as a single, site-specific work six years ago, the growth of “Brownstone”—into other spaces and into a night of programming bigger than just Ciupinski’s composition—made clear to the Ensemble just how successful projects that engaged multisensory experiences could be. On a warm night in May, that means bringing in the talents not only of Cyr and Metropolis Ensemble composers like Ciupinski and Ricardo Romaneiro—who has an informal studio space in the Historical Society’s building—but also chef Jonah Reider (made famous by his Columbia dorm-room dinner club), engineer Leo Leite, lighting designer John Houle, visual artist Christian Hannon, and poet (as well as the Society’s executive director) Chris Cahill.
What makes “Brownstone,” as an evening-long event and as an individual piece of music, different is “that individual audience members have near total control over how they experience and hear the work,” Cyr explains. Guests can freely wander the public areas of the building, the soundscape shifting as they walk from one room to the next: xylophone here, violin there. (Or pause in the hallway to hear a little of both.) “We want the evening to have structure, so it contains a narrative arc,” he is careful to explain, “but within that, it’s truly liberating for an audience member experiencing classical music to be given freedom of movement throughout a multi-story space.” What isn’t different is Metropolis’s core mission: “to create an atmosphere where both deep listening can occur and also allow for moments of surprise, delight, and discovery.”
“This,” Cyr says, “is the lab.”
Romaneiro shows me up to his top floor digs: a studio area that used to be the mansion’s servant quarters and, which, until he moved in, had been unused. He found himself here because of a vaccination. “I was taking a trip in 2007 to Zimbabwe for Julliard,” his alma mater, Romaneiro explains, and someone had recommended a Dr. Cahill he might use for his shots. “He used to be Leonard Bernstein’s doctor,” Romaneiro says by way of explanation. What else could you ask for? Dr. Kevin Cahill, upon hearing that Romaneiro was a composer, sent him twenty blocks north to meet his son at the Historical Society. The elder proved an excellent artistic matchmaker: Romaneiro and the younger Cahill hit it off instantly. “We were immediately coloring poetry with music,” Romaneiro says. One of the works presented that May is a poem by Cahill put to music, The Coarse Air.
Romaneiro, a frequent Metropolis Ensemble collaborator, is the buzzing heart of the May production of “Brownstone,” organizing collaborations with Cahill; with Reider, who Romaneiro brought on board for the project; with Leite, who Romaneiro helped bring from Brazil to the United States; and with Cyr, who brings the Ensemble players into the mansion. “It’s not my vision,” Romaneiro protests, “it’s our vision. Everyone brings something.”
“The thing with classical music is you are done, get out,” he says. Instead this series is “an evolution of the salon, keeping the arts together and cooking it up in a pot. It’s not just a concert—it’s a mix of everything.”
Reider sits in Cahill’s ludicrously beautiful office—it’s enormous and light-filled and covered with books and looks straight out onto the Metropolitan Museum of Art—the week before the May “Brownstone” is set to take place. He looks the part of a college senior—he’s graduating the day after the event. “My grandma is coming the party,” he says. His part in the evening began when Reider introduced himself to Romaneiro, who he heard of through his cousin, celebrated composer Adam Schoenberg.
“You’ve got to talk to Ricardo,” Reider recalls Schoenberg says, “he does some really wacky events.”
Romaneiro remembers being texted out of the blue: “I’m cousins with a friend of yours,” followed by “a bunch of pictures of his food.”
Now they’re working together on a project they call “Sound Bites,” a loop of music composed for a specific culinary experience. “I try to create each Sound Bite with that texture,” Romaneiro says, “attack, decay, sustain, release.”
Reider, who wrote his macroeconomics thesis on collectively owned and run enterprises, talks about “dank” ingredients like dat boi (this is the name of a meme frog) is unicycling behind him. “Anytime you are eating you’re having a sensory experience, straight up.”
“Restaurants who offer a very expensive dining experience are thinking about the same things,” he explains, as the people behind “Brownstone.” “We get to craft a sonic and visual environment, without food being the only interesting thing in it. The aim is not to have one overpower the other.”
“It’s so temporal,” Reider says of food. It’s a quality “the best music also captures. It just kind of passes through you.”
Cahill, when I find him in the now-quiet mansion, is appropriately loquacious, and doubly so about historical matters. He details the Society’s founding in 1897, the owner who built their current building, the Society’s decision to move here in 1940, and the scandal that enveloped the mansion’s last private owner, a steel magnate who ran off with a show girl.
“The Society was founded to make better known the Irish chapter of American history,” Cahill explains. “For many years now—writers, artists, musicians have come here for the library and archives.” Their relationship with live classic performance began eighteen years ago, when Julliard approached the Society about using their space to host chamber music concerts. “Sometimes there’s a connection with Ireland,” he says, “sometimes not.”
“It’s not restricted,” he goes on. He too sees the mansion as “a laboratory of cultural creation.”
“It seems kind of mystical,” Cahill ruminates, “but I believe the building is the repository of all the efforts of the people who built the Society. The building is the author.”
Romaneiro mimics the wonder first-time visitors feel when they enter it. “Wow,” they say, “this is not a brownstone—this is a mansion.” Even in such a grand house, Romaneiro insists, “Brownstone” is about “really bringing people home.”