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When a perfectionist pop artist like Paul Simon, Sufjan Stevens, David Byrne or Ben Folds is in the mood to play with some world class strings or winds, chances are they will call on one or more members of yMusic, a New York-based collective that plays with rock energy and killer classical chops. The group will spend much of this spring and summer on the road with Simon for his “farewell” tour, but before they get on the bus, the group will be in residence at MSU next week for master classes and a Friday concert of music by contemporary composers. Last week we caught up with trumpeter and French horn player C.J. Camerieri.
What’s unique about yMusic?
We didn’t form yMusic because these six instruments made any sense together. We formed it because of these six people. It’s not a string quartet. It’s not a traditional ensemble of any kind. It’s our six favorite people.
If everybody had a kazoo, we’d still have the group. We’d just all be playing kazoo. We started the group for the right reasons — because we all like playing music together all the time.
Our philosophy is that we play classical music as if we were on stage with a rock band, and when we’re on stage with a rock band, we approach it like we’re playing Bach.
How did you meet each other?
We were social friends but we never made music together in school. About three or four years after graduating from Juilliard, we started seeing each other at surprising gigs — with bands like The National, Sufjan Stevens or Rufus Wainwright. We’d be like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘I love this stuff.’ We were this funny little collection of conservatory-trained musicians that found their way into this other musical zone. So we decided to make it official.
How do you choose the music you play?
When we started the group, there was no music for it . Nobody had composed a piece for string trio (violinist/guitarist Rob Moose, cellist Gabriel Cabezas and violist Nadia Sirota) plus a person who plays bass clarinet and clarinet (Hideaki Aomori), a person who plays all the flutes (Alex Sopp) and a person who plays trumpet and French horn (Camerieri).
We were forced to have our very talented friends create music for us because none existed.
How did the Paul Simon tour come about?
I’ve been in his band for four years. When I started in yMusic, I’d give Paul records we were working on and he loved them. Then I started inviting him to hear the group perform in New York. He really enjoyed it, as did his son. I always had this idea of putting yMusic and Paul on stage together. I played in this band, Bon Iver, for years. I asked Justin Vernon [frontman of Bon Iver] if he would let us do a set at his music festival in Eau Claire, Wisconsin — if I was able to talk Paul into it. Paul said ‘yes’ just like that. So we had our favorite classical composers write arrangements of our favorite Paul Simon songs. He had a great time, and for this big tour he’s about to embark on, he asked me if he could add the whole group to the band. So now I get to bring my five friends on tour with me. We’ll be in Detroit some time in June, I believe.
[June 10 at DTE Music Energy Theatre.]
It’s really fun for me because I get to combine my two musical worlds into one.
When you play with pop stars like Sufjan Stevens, do you feel like cherries on top of somebody else’s ice cream or real collaborators?
We feel like collaborators. For a lot of us, Sufjan was our first gig. He was an oboe major at Interlochen Arts Academy growing up. He knew the culture and the way we like to approach music. One great part of working with him is that he never wanted us to be comfortable on stage. If we got comfortable with a part, he would double up the notes, make it go twice as fast or push it up an octave. He always wanted you to have this energy of being challenged personally and musically.
What was it like to play with Yoko Ono?
I got a chance to work with the Plastic Ono Band for a while and she was just the warmest, loveliest person, very supportive. She just turned 85, by the way. A story I love to tell is that we were on a sound check and she said, ‘Make sure everything’s not too loud on stage and people are able to hear my voice.’ So we walk out on stage, we’re murmuring and not playing very loud, and she looks over at us and says, ‘What’s the matter with you guys? Turn it up.’ She immediately wants to rock out. She is so spontaneous and adventurous musically, such an inspiring person.
What are you playing at Friday’s MSU concert?
We’ll play a collection from all three of our records, plus a world premiere of a new piece by one of our favorite composers, Gabriella Smith.
She just delivered it to us, we spent a couple of days learning it, and we’re really excited about that. The harmonic language is really unique and rich, the melodies are great.
We can’t wait to premiere it.
yMusic 8 p.m. Friday, April 6
Fairchild Auditorium, MSU $10-20 (517) 353-5340