Radical Cellists: Renegade Orchestra keeps it classical and contemporary
By Lou Fancher
Watching YouTube videos of Renegade Orchestra perform at the Brooklyn Basin in Oakland and at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Napa, it occurs to me that betrayal is a good thing. I’m talking about a group of string musicians—plus drummer Blake Ritterman—who, under the baton of co-founder, guitarist and conductor Jason Eckl, turn Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” into a shimmering string-centric odyssey, capture the classic helter-skelter vibe in Paul McCartney’s and John Lennon’s “Helter Skelter,” find the funk in “What’d I Say” by Ray Charles and crash with vibratory verve through Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” All this from a chamber string ensemble.
Formed in 2021 and triggered in part by a project with Symphony Napa Valley that Eckl participated in six years ago, Renegade features top-tier, classically trained Bay Area professional musicians playing decidedly un-classical music. Importantly, the playlist is also everything we’d never expect from even the most forward-thinking pop orchestra. “The project with the Napa Valley symphony was formed under its umbrella and was called The Dirty Symphony,” Eckl says in a phone interview. “We had great success, with tours all over—but then the funding dried up. The idea stuck with me and last summer, Rebecca and I started Renegade.”
Eckl is referring to crossover-cellist Rebecca Roudman, a regular performer with various Bay Area symphonies and the founder/leader of Dirty Cello. Roudman’s cello-led combo group bulldozes across rock, pop, bluegrass, jazz, world music and other dividing categorical lines and in the process turns upside down conceptions of what a cello—and a radical cellist—can do.
“If you like one, you’ll like the other,” says Eckl when asked if Renegade and Dirty Cello overlap. Notably, the groups differ in one crucial way. “The focus in Dirty Cello is definitely Rebecca,” he says. “With the orchestra, it’s Rebecca plus all the other musicians.”
That focus on each musician in an ensemble is what will bring, if anything does, recognition—or maybe even a degree of notoriety—to Renegade. “We are important because the idea starts with featuring musicians who don’t get honored for their skills in a typical orchestra,” Eckl says. “The second part is that we like to have people enjoy music. This is not sit-and-tap-your-toes-politely; our audiences clap, shout, maybe even scream. Plus, we’ll have a show at a winery where they’ll slap a stage together for us at the last minute. We’ll perform anywhere we can bring a smile to someone’s face.”
At the Blue Note show in early February 2022, the stage was designed for a jazz-combo band. Renegade had to leave half of the orchestra behind to fit into the small space and even so, Eckl remembers tucking his elbows by his sides while conducting to avoid bumping a musician off the stage. A good-size audience attended—Eckl says they were thrilled to see live music performed and remembers servers gleefully discussing having people to serve after weeks of canceled shows due to the ongoing pandemic.
Renegades’ debut concert, in July 2021 at Brooklyn Basin, sold out so quickly that the orchestra booked a second night at Piedmont Center for the Arts. “It’s interesting putting an orchestra outdoors, because string instruments and the sun don’t work together well, but the Basin is a great place to perform,” he says. “In Piedmont, we had a brief argument with the construction crew across the street. We had been told they wouldn’t be working on a Sunday, but there they were. It took a little negotiation, but they stopped their jackhammers long enough for us to play during their lunch break.”
The orchestra for the upcoming March 5 show, at Riggers Wine Loft in Richmond, includes core members Roudman, Ritterman, Greg Studley (electric bass), Tammie Dyer (violin), Magda Zaczek (violin), Stephanie Ng (viola), Colin Williams (upright bass) and Christine Meals (violin). Eckl says the space is large enough to allow them to increase the number of instrumentalists by 50%, but for now, no wind players will be added. “All the venues have asked us not to have anyone blowing air, due to Covid concerns,” he says. “For now, we’re a string orchestra with a rock and roll rhythm section.”
On the playlist are roughly 20 works that Eckl reiterates are the exact opposite of what might be expected of a pop orchestra. “You’d expect a big, lush Beatles tune like ‘Yesterday.’ What we do is ‘Helter Skelter.’ It’s crunch rock and roll; short rhythmic passages that push the music forward instead of being relaxing.” With ‘Sinnerman,’ Renegade aims to recreate Simone’s impeccable skills as a pianist and her depth of feeling as a performer. “We take what she does with her left hand and throw it into the low strings,” he says. “And then we take the nuances of her melody and give it to the high violins.”
In another selection, “Zombie”—by Dolores O’Riordan from the Cranberries—the song’s backstory about the troubles related to an IRA bombing in which children were killed is captured by the musicians’ attack and concentrated energy. “Baroque Fantasia,” a work written by Eckl, serves as an example of the orchestra’s wide range. “I wrote it as if I was a Baroque composer who would today be writing rock music,” Eckl says. “It has the notes and color palette Bach would have used if electric guitars had been available to him.”
Ritterman on drums is an essential aspect for Renegade to not sound like a cheesy pop orchestra. Achieving a genuine rock-band sound—with a heavy back-beat and the rhythm of rock, but without overwhelming the strings—demands a sensitive drummer. “When you turn a drummer loose, they destroy an orchestra volume-wise,” Eckl says. “We had to find a drummer who could play with excitement without drowning out the violin and the viola. Blake has high professional technique, so he can keep the beat at a quiet volume level. Others we auditioned could bang away, but they couldn’t keep the beat at a reasonable indoor level.”
Guiding the orchestra’s decisions about repertoire and venues and the aesthetics Eckl emphasizes during our conversation, I get the distinct impression the primary focus will always be on the musicians as individuals. When I test the idea, it draws a heartfelt response from Eckl, who says, “In a standard orchestra, you hear about the conductor and the special guests. We feature everybody and let each person play with amazing ability. That happens in solos they have, but also in parts not written for that instrument originally, that in our adaptations let you hear how amazing they are.”
For the same reason, Renegade’s mission statement says the group will never add a vocalist. “When you hear a vocalist you, remember the vocalist and not the orchestra. Audiences asked afterwards about what they liked best, you rarely hear them talk about the string section,” he says. “We don’t want to put forward anything that pulls away from the musicians.”
Which sounds, even coming from someone who’s gone rogue and is hell-bent on “betraying” the stuffy, elitist classical-music idiom, like a renegade conductor’s best promise.