Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 38 / 21 September 2017
 

Well-Strung

BARtab

The 'POPssical' quartet returns to Feinstein's


Well-Strung
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With a new album out, and a few years of touring around the country (and even The Vatican), Well-Strung, the acclaimed string quartet of hunky musician-singers, returns to Feinstein's at the Nikko on October 4 for a one-night concert of new and favorite songs that deftly combine pop and classical music.

The quartet features Edmund Bagnell (first violin), Christopher Marchant (second violin), Daniel Shevlin (cello) and Trevor Wadleigh (viola). The classically trained musicians put their own spin on music from Mozart, Madonna, Ravel, Pink, Beethoven, Kelly Clarkson and even Britney Spears.

I spoke with Marchant and producer Mark Cortale in recent phone interviews. The quartet had just returned from Italy, where they performed at The Vatican, of all places.

"We had such a fantastic time," said Marchant. "This had been in the works since April. We had six days in Rome. The prime reason was a humungous 60th birthday party for a friend who wanted us as entertainment, and had parties all weekend. Then we performed at a small Mass."

And no, the Pope was not in attendance. "It was in a smaller area, not the main basilica, called the Hungarian chapel. There were about 30 people there, plus a cardinal."

Asked what they played (Bach Brandenberg concerto excerpt meets Carly Jepson's "Call Me Maybe" wouldn't seem appropriate), Marchant said, "We performed Pachelbel's 'Canon in D-major.' They had asked if we had quartet arrangements for some hymns. We weren't familiar with them, but we played one for the communion."

The quartet's turf in summers includes their homes in New York City, and Provincetown, where producer Cortale premiered the act at The Art House in 2012.

"We performed in Provincetown three or four times this summer," said Marchant. "We plan those days around traveling at other gigs." And the quartet has been on the move, touring in several venues nationwide.

The quartet's new album is out this week on iTunes. Produced with Switch Records, the songs are independently produced, and after their San Francisco show, they'll perform at Gay Days at Disneyland in Anaheim, then back to New York City for a CD release show, and a show at the University of Las Vegas. Their fall and winter tour continues in New Orleans and elsewhere.

Well-Strung's POPssical fun

Asked about all this travel, specifically his colleague, Daniel Shevlin and his cello, Marchant said that more often they rent a local cello. "We can insure our instruments, but it's easier to rent than bring one." The other musicians bring their valuable instruments as carry-on in airplanes.

Somewhere in between their schedule, they not only released a new CD, POPssical , but also worked on their own musical arrangements.

"The new album's a good example of our fusing the pop and classical pieces to find ways they overlap," said Marchant. "That's been our primary focus on arrangements. Our summer show was taking that one step further."

Marchant said their playful (and occasionally somber) mash-up repertory has more than doubled since they started working together three years ago.

"As often as possible, we try to find a great mix, if for no other reason than they have a similar musical mood, which is the case with the Grieg quartet and 'Wrecking Ball.'"

Asked about the onstage moment when the audience 'gets' the musical pun, Marchant agreed that audiences do laugh, but it's not a distraction. "It doesn't really throw us, we know when to expect it," he said. "The prime example is our version of 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia.' When they duel, instead of the traditional solos, we switch to a Bach double violin concerto. It's really good dueling music."

 

Producer Mark Cortale

The Producer

After meeting Chris Marchant when he was playing his violin on a street in Provincetown, Mark Cortale knew he saw great potential.

The producer of many shows at the Provincetown Art Theatre since 2011, including Varla Jean Merman, Grey Gardens with Peaches Christ, Cortale's venue also brings in national talents like Lea DeLaria, Sutton Foster, Neil Patrick Harris, Jane Krakowsi and RuPaul's Drag Race winners, Cortale also produces the touring Broadway Concert series hosted by Seth Rudetsky, which will return to San Francisco's Nourse Theater in San Francisco, with Darren Criss (Oct. 30) and Sutton Foster (Jan. 16: www.markcortalepresents.com ) .

"It took us both a year to get it going," said Cortale of the concept. "In the summer of 2010, I first met Chris, I spoke to him about starting a show that incorporated pop and classical music. It wasn't until Fall 2011 that we got serious. Chris found our cellist Daniel, then I took out an ad in Backstage and Playbill. After two months of auditions, we met Edmund and Trevor."

Originally settling for a trio, they had yet to find a fourth musician only weeks before the group's debut "I'm a firm believer in deadlines," said Cortale. "We didn't find Trevor until right before the show. It all worked out."

Cortale said that explaining the quartet's concept becomes unnecessary as soon as anyone hears their music.

"People are stunned when the guys start singing," he said. "It's really unusual to see a string quartet that can sing. These guys have beautiful voices. They're all vocalists who can sing in intricate harmonies. It really sets them apart."

Well-Strung on stage at a recent concert.

The quartet's proven to be quite telegenic, as numerous TV appearances have proven. The fact that they're also handsome adds to the appeal.

"That's one of the things we've discovered about launching videos," said Cortale. "The visuals are so important to get the word out about how talented these guys are."

That all four musicians are openly gay was merely a coincidence, said Cortale. "When we met and the group formed, it was incidental, despite the fact that we started in Provincetown."

He admits that at first it was a challenge to expand their audience. "Now, when you go to a show, you see all kinds of people. There are kids in the audience, and it's such a great show to get kids interested in classical music, to see a show where the music is accessible and fun. The greatest compliment is that a week after the show, were told that someone's son or daughter decided to take up an instrument. That's a really great thing to see, so gratifying."

Cortale added, "We also get a lot of classical music fans who don't know Pink or Rihanna."

Their early repertory was aided by arranger David Levinson, including the quartet's dramatic arrangement of Britney Spears' "Toxic." Cortale counts that song as impressing even purist classical musicians.

Now the four performers are arranging more of their own songs. "They want to have more control artistically," said Cortale. "Plus, I think in the initial two years, they were overwhelmed with pushing things forward, and there wasn't time to consider it. They've been on this crazy pace. But in the past year they decided they want to do their own arrangements, and made the time for it."

While they obtain recording and performing rights to the contemporary songs (their classical choices are royalty-free), the quartet has yet to get a response from any of the pop stars whose songs they perform.

"Hopefully, the more we put out, sometime in the future, we might get their attention," said Cortale. But the quartet's priority is pleasing their growing audience of not-so famous fans. "In the past three years, they've really come together and grown as performers."

 

Well-Strung performs at Feinstein's at the Nikko, Sunday October 4 at 7pm. $35-$50. Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason Street. (866) 663-1063. www.well-strung.com - www.ticketweb.com





See more videos at Well-String's YouTube Channel.




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