Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Music review: Bleacher stomping at Time for Three

Time for Three raised a ruckus at Kaul./Photo: Steve J. Sherman
By Barry Johnson

Time for Three is a group of musicians, two violists and a double bassist, who met at the Curtis Institute of Music and graduated from the prestigious conservatory in 2002 or 2003. According to their bios in the Friends of Chamber Music program for their show Monday night at Reed College's Kaul Auditorium, they all play in a wide variety of musical environments. So, violinist Zachary De Pue is the concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where Time for Three is in residency at the moment.  Violinist Nicolas Kendall plays in both a chamber orchestra and a string quartet. And bass player Ranaan Meyer, who is also a composer, sits in with large symphonies (Philadelphia, Baltimore and Minnesota, for example) and jazz bands.

My only point is that these guys know their classical music and their technique is excellent. But at Monday's concert, only two specifically "classical" moments arose. The first was an adaptation of a Bach piece, which they sped up and improvised around. The second was Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 and that turned into a comedy number, slipping into "Hava Nagila" and "If I Were a Rich Man" before its rousing conclusion.

For the rest, they played adaptations of Bill Monroe ("Jerusalem's Ridge"), Charlie Rouse ("Orange Blossom Special"), Leonard Cohen ("Hallelujah"), Lennon and McCartney ("Blackbird") as well as several of Meyer's own compositions, richly sonorous and melodic but more indebted to Americana than Mittel Europa.

Their attack on the familiar numbers was clever and energetic. "Blackbird" began with a little repeating melody, which on the surface had nothing to do with Lennon/McCartney, and then added a bass line that supplied the right rhythm the song maybe, but still didn't hint at the famous melody to come.  When that finally arrived, "Blackbird singing in the dead of night," the first repeated figure and the bass line made absolutely perfect sense. And of course it was beautifully played.

The audience, which didn't quite fill Kaul Auditorium, responded enthusiastically. I even heard foot-stomping from the bleachers after "Orange Blossom Special," which does NOT happen at classical concerts at Kaul, in case you haven't attended one there. (OK, they aren't exactly "bleachers" -- let's just say, "raised seating area.") And why not? Time for Three is really good. They look like they're having fun. The trio generates a great rhythmic pulse, they blend together superbly on the harmonies, the solos are sharp and speedy, they change tempo like a fine sports car changes gears and Meyer's bass supplies both a great grounding drone and a far lighter "cello" sound that makes his instrument at least an equal in the trio, if not the leader.

In short, the question, "How classical is it?", doesn't ever come up. Though these musicians are classically trained, they apply that training to different sorts of music. I speculate here from time to time about the future of classical forms, especially music and ballet, and whether the big institutions that have formed to preserve them can continue in their present form or whether they have to change significantly to survive. But that's a different question than what's going to happen to classically trained musicians, related sure, but different.

Since the Kronos Quartet (which will play here next year in the Friends of Chamber Music series) opened my ears back in the 1980s, I've been interested in the sort of genre bending that groups such as Time for Three do. Some of my deepest musical experiences have come from musicians blending and mixing and mashing various classical and popular forms. Right now, I'm thinking of Edgar Meyer, like Ranaan (and presumably unrelated) a bass player, and his collaborations with banjo player Bela Fleck and tabla master Zakir Hussain, though I could also be recalling his work with Fleck,  Joshua Bell, Mark O'Connor, Yo-Yo Ma and others on Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology, which restored the profundity of that mountain folk music to contemporary listeners.

Some of Ranaan Meyer's compositions remind me of Heartland and his approach to the bass reminds me of Edgar Meyer, which is a high compliment not an accusation. Music, rightly, passes around like that. And I could launch into an argument against our current restrictive copyright laws here, but I won't.  Let's just say that our time is full of the excitement of exploration and adaptation, and that is one of its primary compensations.


Christa Wessel said...

I loved this concert, too. The level of musicianship was so high that I would have trusted these 3 young men to take me anywhere musically.

Loved the smiling and the goofy banter, too...

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