The New York City gallery was packed, the composer in attendance, the quartet dressed in matching gray striped vests, black shirts and black pants. The titles gave a hint this was not going to be a typical recital of classical chamber music: “Creepalicious,” “The Sidewalk Strut,” “Dancing On My Grave,” “Skunk.”
The musicians picked up their bows and began to play and the audience knew right away they were witnessing something unique. Each of the 18 pieces, grouped into four sets, ran about three minutes. Some selections harked back to classical music in tone, structure or overall feeling. Most of the concert felt closer to the idioms of blues, soul, jazz, rock and popular ballads.
That was the challenge issued to composer Bruce Wolosoff of Shelter Island by the Carpe Diem String Quartet: Leave what you know behind—the world of full-length operas, ballets, sonatas and classical orchestra pieces—and write something completely unique. Mix the worlds of American popular music in a way that a string quartet can rock out and electrify an audience.
And so Mr. Wolosoff did exactly that. The move was a risky one. Dabbling in “light” music like blues and rock is a no-no for “serious” composers of classical music, Mr. Wolosoff and Charles Wetherbee, the quartet’s first violinist, explained in separate interviews.
“We were looking for a piece that would capture the feeling of groove, not crossover music, but a fusion between classical and American popular music,” Mr. Wetherbee said.
Whether or not Mr. Wolosoff would actually accept was the wild card.
“I gave it some thought before I said yes,” the composer said in an interview before Saturday night’s premiere. “I didn’t know what this would mean. Would this be a new direction and would it be difficult to pick up where I left off before the commission?”
Mr. Wetherbee had no doubt that Mr. Wolosoff was up to the challenge, having played a Wolosoff trio nine years ago in Washington, D.C. He was already hooked on Mr. Wolosoff’s work, which seemed to hint at jazz and blues. Playing a violin sonata with a chamber orchestra in Colorado shortly after cinched his opinion.
The Carpe Diem String Quartet has commissioned several new works from Mr. Wolosoff. When the Ohio-based group wanted to play pieces that combined the popular music they loved with their passion of playing, they turned to Mr. Wolosoff with a clear directive: use your own musical language but create a program of short pieces that feels like American popular music.
Based on Saturday night’s audience reaction at the Nabi Gallery, the experimental direction was a success. The Carpe Diem String Quartet gave a flawless performance of music that challenged and surprised. Fresh from recording the music, the quartet was completely connected, understood the music and flew with it to rock the house with an emotionally expressive and kick-ass concert.
Simmering excitement was manifested in the smiles and attentiveness of the audience. The quartet physically grooved to music that conjured Ella Fitzgerald: aching blues and torch songs that suggested vocals. A standing ovation brought an encore of Mr. Wetherbee’s favorite Wolosoff piece, “Dancing On My Grave” with a looser improvisational feel. So went the premiere of “Songs Without Words—18 Divertimenti for String Quartet.”
A recording is expected to be released in late spring by the Carpe Diem String Quartet, www.carpediemstringquartet.com. A YouTube video showing a rehearsal can be found on the Nabi Gallery website, www.nabigallery.com. The quartet—Charles Wetherbee, John Ewing, Korine Fujiwara and Deigo Fainguersch—is in residence at Ohio Wesleyan University. They record and perform frequently and are devoted to innovative programming and championing the music of living composers.
Information on Bruce Wolosoff can be found at http://brucewolosoff.com. His commissions include works for the Minnesota Ballet, the Columbus Symphony, the Lark String Quartet, the 21st Century Consort and others. Mr. Wolosoff recently finished a set of variations on “Shenandoah” for solo piano. While considering what to do next, i.e. “waiting for the next commission,” he said, he is preparing to record some of his piano music in late May.
“Songs Without Words” was part of a monthly musical series related to the artwork on view at the Nabi Gallery; the exhibition on view for the Wolosoff concert was a solo show of abstract paintings, landscapes and drawings by N.H. Stubbing (1921-1983) of Sagaponack. The Nouveau Classical Project will host a program on January 27 that combines avant-garde fashion with classical music, www.nouveauclassical.org.