By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Cellist Laura Metcalf, who grew up in Connecticut, is coming up on her 19th year in New York, where she has been involved in one creative project after another. She founded the string quartet the Overlook, dedicated to amplifying music by Black composers. With her husband, classical guitarist Rupert Boyd, she has a duo called Boyd Meets Girl. She performs with the cello-percussion quartet Break of Reality, selected in 2015 for a world tour as musical ambassadors by the US State Department. She was cellist of the string quintet Sybarite5. After the pandemic, Metcalf started teaching one day a week at a school in the Bronx, the Riverdale Country School, in order to have “a little bit of steady work.”
“I am drawn to chamber music at the intersection of genres,” Metcalf tells me in a wide-ranging conversation. “I’ve never been a part of, like, a super standard classical string quartet. And I couldn’t have predicted the way it’s all unfolded. It’s become even more exciting than I would have imagined.”
Metcalf’s current project is a Sunday-morning concert series called GatherNYC at the Museum of Arts and Design on Columbus Circle, the heart of Manhattan. Now in its fifth year, there will be a concert every two weeks until the end of May.
“We want to showcase the diversity of incredible talent and the immense creativity of our musical scene here in New York. We’ll have a classical string quartet followed by a fiddle bluegrass band. We had Baroque harpsichord for the first time last week. Violinist Alex Fortes and soprano Ariadne Greif will do Kurtág’s Kafka Fragments next week. We’ve got a beatboxer coming in with cellist Mike Block in a couple of weeks, and we’ll have a sextet from the New York Philharmonic close out our season with Vivaldi and Verklärte Nacht.”
Each one-hour concert opens with a short music set followed by a five-to-seven-minute spoken word performance inspired by the open mic format of the Moth StorySLAM storytelling competitions. “It’s an interesting moment of something completely different from the music, and it often connects with the audience,” Metcalf says. “Then we have a two-minute celebration of silence when we turn the lights down, centering ourselves in the center of the city. Then the lights come back on, and the music starts again out of the silence. We find that the listening and the feeling in the room changes after that.”
GatherNYC launched in 2018 and was just shy of its 50th concert when Covid hit; it carried on from 2018 to 2020 at the downtown venue Subculture, which “unfortunately during Covid went out of business.” Metcalf regrouped and in 2021 presented outdoor concerts at the historic Morris–Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights before moving in the fall of 2021 to the Museum of Arts and Design.
Metcalf explains that GatherNYC was inspired by a long-standing series in Albuquerque called Chatter, which produces 50 Sunday morning concerts each year. “They developed a beautiful supportive community. Even if it’s something that may not be familiar, they come out and they support it—and oftentimes they love it. We wanted to create something similar in New York. Not the same scene or climate but the idea of a Sunday gathering, the feeling of ritual around music, spoken word, and meditation, and coming together as a community.”
Metcalf is especially proud of Boyd Meets Girl. “We play a large range of music where we arrange classical and pop songs; we also do new music written for us. It’s a microcosm of the variety that we’re looking for in our GatherNYC programming. We’re touring more since the pandemic; in fact, because we were home together, we had the time to create a lot of new content and do a lot of online stuff. Our visibility increased. We’ve also been playing at a bunch of music festivals, at Caramoor and Moab, Newport, and Napa Valley. We released our second studio album last March.”
Metcalf studied with Timothy Eddy. “He was the best. He encouraged me to pursue what I wanted to. He didn’t try to tell me what to do. He helped me figure things out. He said, ‘You need to be sensible. You need to make a plan and go for it.’”
Metcalf was nine when she started playing the cello in a group class at her public school. “I was not a prodigy who was winning competitions when I was 13. A lot of my concentrated work and practice was done when I was an undergrad rather than when I was eight. I liked being able to come to the cello on my own, to fully go for it. Spending the time on it when I was a little bit older made me more appreciative of what I accomplished and what I’m able to do now. But everybody’s different. Some kids just take to it, and it feels natural to them, and it feels natural to their parents to nurture it and support it. And that’s great. And maybe if I’d started when I was four, I would be a virtuoso soloist playing concertos all the time. Who knows? But for me, I’m grateful for the way that my story unfolded.”