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Pop Goes the Quartet

Quartetto Gelato ain't your father's chamber quartet

Take a couple of classical fiddlers, mix in some fiery oboe licks, throw in a little freebase accordion, serve it up with megadoses of a Puccini-loving Irish tenor, and what's the end result? The inimitable, irreverent flavor of Quartetto Gelato. Dubbed "debut artist of the year" in 1996 by National Public Radio, the Canadian-based chamber music ensemble combines Italian arias, Gypsy rhapsodies and traditional folk tunes in a fresh, new repertory that takes Ravel just as seriously as "Danny Boy." Besides violin, cello, oboe and accordion, the four-member troupe incorporates English horn, mandolin and guitar in its eclectic arrangements.

Six years ago, the members of QG started playing informal bed-and-breakfast gigs as a sideline and diversion from their classical music careers. When they began rehearsing for a variety show, they decided to ditch their sheet music and music stands so they'd fit in better with the other pop performers. During that show they saw it was possible to achieve the intimacy that blues audiences take for granted. Billing themselves as a classical music band, QG set out to recapture the lively, energetic concert experience that's often missing in the chamber music hall. On Friday, March 5, they bring their freewheeling style and whimsy to the Wortham Center's Cullen Theater in a show sponsored by Society for the Performing Arts.

A casual QG radio listener might wonder how serious the group is about classical music. Pretty serious, judging from each member's success as a touring musician. In her past life, Cynthia Steljes played principal oboe and English horn with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada. Tenor and violinist Peter De Sotto cut his musical teeth on jazz, rock, Gypsy and bluegrass before he began a ten-year stint with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Cellist/guitarist George Meanwell recorded two albums with the pop trio Short Turn before rooting himself in the Winnipeg chamber music scene and playing principal cello for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Newest QG member Joseph Macerollo has had more than 200 works commissioned for his accordion by Canadian composers. He toured with numerous quartets and the Winnipeg Symphony while also collaborating with Pavarotti, Teresa Stratas and Henry Mancini.

The cheekiness of QG's name (which Steljes says comes from a love of ice cream and "the eclecticism ice cream has to offer") reveals a commitment to leaping boundaries of musical genre. During the Houston show, they'll jump from Strauss's 19th-century waltz rhythms to Piazzolla's sizzling tango to Leoncavallo's verismo opera. At first they got together to play quartets for the oboe, but the oboe repertoire ran out pretty fast, Steljes admits. Besides needing a showcase for De Sotto's voice, the idiosyncratic mix gave them a chance to do something they weren't doing as professionals. It also allowed them to incorporate De Sotto's Gypsy heritage, Meanwell's folk roots and former member Claudio Vena's Neapolitan musical upbringing.

Part of QG's magic lies in its wild, new arrangements of old Baroque fogeys such as Bach. Most of the pieces showcase the virtuosity of at least two of the players. In Ravel's "Piece en forme de Habanera " and a concert variation of themes from Donizetti's La Favorita, Steljes's scintillating oboe pyrotechnics show amazing breathing control. Her woodwind solos hark back to the rhapsodic, peripatetic Paganini. A blend of De Sotto's tenor adds another compelling dimension to this sound. His rendering of "Danny Boy" and "O Sole Mio" sound like the classic Irish tenor John McCormack laden with a trumpet resonance that's especially solid in the upper registers.

There are also songs that showcase Marcarello, one of the handful of top accordionists in the world. "[His instrument] sounds like a pump organ," says De Sotto. "It's a freebase accordion," which has nothing to do with drugs, he says wryly. "It's got two left-handed keyboards, allowing him to play melodies with his left hand as well as his right. The palette of colors is unbelievable. Because the instrument has 80 different buttons, he can go as low as a contrabassoon and as high as a piccolo and achieves the vibrato and tremolo of the strings. You're not getting the standard oompah music here. He matches the sonorities of the string players and woodwinds of the group.

"In Piazzolla's 'Tanti Anni Prima,' " De Sotto continues, "[Macerollo] starts with a single line that sounds like a distant harmonium. The whole tune is done very playfully. He's got a lot of experience playing around tables and a background performing in avant-garde [surroundings]." The upcoming Houston show features Macerollo in Steljes's arrangement of five Dvorak bagatelles. The Czech composer originally wrote these pieces for the pump organ.

De Sotto discussed QG's habit of introducing each number with a droll, ambience-setting anecdote, creating an entertaining, ironic distance that breaks down the formal context of the opera. Before he sings "Di rigori armato il seno," an aria from Strauss's story of the Rose Knight, De Sotto will say, "This is a piece that shows Strauss delving into his pop sensibility after writing Salome and Electra. The whole three-hours-plus opera is really a showcase for the tenor aria I'm about to sing."

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