By Aaron Reiss
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When the Houston Symphony issued invitations for a media preview of the new season, it promised entertainment by the Bad Boys of Cello, the alter ego of the symphony's cello section. Between white wine and chitchat, I peeked through a cracked door to the practice room. The Bad Boys wore dark shades, bandannas and black T-shirts with rolled-up sleeves. The costumes smacked of a publicity stunt: a desperate ploy, maybe to prove that classical music is hip. Not your father's symphony, something corny like that.
On stage, Chris "Smart Ass" French, the ringleader, snarled a few snide quips, telling the audience not to expect too much. Then a long line of cello bows sawed out the screechy theme from Psycho, which was followed by vigorous tunes from Peter Gunn and The Simpsons. The music was lively and expertly played. The Bad Boys were more than a stunt. They were good. Really good.
Since the '80s, the ten-person Houston Symphony cello section has had an attitude. Section member Marian Wilson says the symphony personnel manager has documented complaints about their rowdiness in rehearsals. Wilson muses that the cello section's original bad boy was Korean cellist Hyunjin Cho, who died of cancer in 1985. He had a gift for drawing and liked to sketch nice round butts in the white space at the end of his sheet music. To this day, section members still sometimes run across Cho's beefy signatures.
Chris French feels that the section's attitude began as rebellion against the old-style leadership of former principal cellist Shirley Trepel. "Her whole idea of principal cello playing was, 'You play soft. I'll play loud,' " he remembers. "She'd often turn around and wag her finger like, 'You bad boys.' " Once, before French earned tenure, he says, she told him backstage, "You're a smart-ass, and you need to prove to me you're not." (Now, of course, French's nom de Bad Boy is "Smart Ass.")
One time, the cello section hired a male stripper for Trepel's birthday party. And over the years, the group has riled more than one conductor. Once, the orchestra was rehearsing the Verdi Requiem with former music director Sergiu Comissiona. During the seventh movement, French got tickled as he watched the a cappella guest soprano swaying like a Baptist preacher.
"I started making eyes at one of the violinists, and she started laughing," French remembers. "The conductor stopped, put down his baton and stared right at me. I stared back naively and pretended not to notice. Then he paused: 'Are you quite finished now?' " French didn't answer.
Laid-back Des Hoebig took over the principal cellist seat in 1991. Rather than fighting the Bad Boys, he joined them, and the cello section hit its stride. Beloved conductor Christoph Eschenbach once told National Public Radio that it's the best in the world.
"We're intensely proud and, one might say, a little cocky," brags French. The section officially declared its identity during a symphony performance with guest player Yo-Yo Ma. After the show, the cellists joined Ma on stage, played "Stars and Stripes" and stripped, exposing T-shirts that labeled them -- what else? -- The Bad Boys of Cello.
Since then, the cellists have performed a few times as the Bad Boys. They have a home page (vellocet.insync.net/~kfd/main.htm) complete with a "Match Our Butts" game (an homage to Cho?), and are considering cutting a CD of their own. But they're in no hurry; they don't want their antics to turn it into a grind. And in fact, they recently turned down a high-profile gig: Last month, the Democratic National Committee invited the Bad Boys to perform for Bill Clinton at La Colombe d'Or but refused to pay the $1,000 the Bad Boys asked.
The group declined to play. Their usual fee is $5,000; they weren't going to work for free, not even for the President. The symphony asked them to take the job anyway.
They didn't. Explains Chris "Smart Ass" French: "We don't have to do anything."