From Mozart to Madonna
Well-Strung blends musical genres
Well-Strung is a singing string quartet, but that’s not all. It’s a singing string quartet that performs classical and pop music, mixing Bach and Britney, Mozart and Madonna. To the members of the ensemble — violinists Edmund Bagnell and Chris Marchant, violist Trevor Wadleigh, and cellist Daniel Shevlin — this blending of genres isn’t just a reflection of their diverse personal tastes; it speaks to a fluidity within a larger musical heritage and tradition. Local concertgoers can experience this musical mélange firsthand on Tuesday, March 14, when the New York City-based quartet performs at the Lensic Performing Arts Center.
“There would be no pop without the classical that came before it,” said Wadleigh, an experienced orchestral musician who studied music performance at the University of Puget Sound. “Musical structures and tonalities evolve and change over time, but it’s the same language that started centuries ago. There are different norms in either genre, but in the end it’s all the same material.”
Well-Strung traces its roots to the summer of 2010, when Marchant was performing in a musical revue in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and playing violin as a street musician to earn extra money. He caught the eye (and ear) of producer Mark Cortale, and together they conceived of the quartet. “During my time in musical theater, I was often used as a singing violinist, which I really enjoyed,” said Marchant, who hails from Akron, Ohio, and began playing violin at the age of nine. “Whenever I had to focus on doing just one thing in a show, I was often a little bored. Well-Strung is a great way for me to pursue multiple interests that I love. I’m also very passionate about both popular and classical music — it’s important for me to have a lot of both in my life.”
Marchant and Cortale held auditions for the group, but Well-Strung didn’t fully materialize until all of its members were on board and they began to collaborate on everything from repertoire selection to arrangements of that repertoire. “I think the most intriguing thing about the group was that its concept was malleable,” said Bagnell, who studied violin at New York University and performed in summer stock. “I think the group really took shape once the four of us were together, and we could create music that played to our individual strengths as entertainers and musicians.”
For Shevlin, the allure of joining Well-Strung was similar to Marchant’s reason for creating it. “It meant being able to finally fuse all of the skills I had been using separately into a new and special performance,” he said, alluding to both his cello-playing, which he began at age ten, and his background studying musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. The novelty of the quartet was also attractive. “It’s very rare for string musicians to play and sing at the same time,” he added.
Well-Strung made its official debut in May 2012, at Joe’s Pub in New York City, following a public workshop three months earlier. Since then, the group has performed around the country (including for President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) and abroad. The ensemble also released two albums — Well-Strung in 2013 and POPssical in 2015 — with a third album in the works.
When it comes to what, specifically, the quartet performs, Bagnell noted that the offerings are varied. “We cover many of the great classical composers: Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Grieg, Beethoven, etc.,” he said. “Pop-wise we’re all over the board, from Taylor Swift to Leonard Cohen, from Radiohead to Destiny’s Child.” One common denominator, however, is that the music is relatable.
“Mostly we just decide what kind of music we enjoy performing, but we also try to have very recognizable repertoire that our audience can really connect to,” Shevlin said. “Finding the right blend of pop and classical songs to mash up takes time, but we’ve received a lot of praise for the unique combinations we’ve come up with so far. We’re open to suggestions or requests when made,” he added, “but creating the right arrangement for four voices and four strings takes careful planning and a fair amount of time to rehearse.” The group finds particular artists especially appealing. “My all-time favorite composer is Mozart,” Bagnell said. “He wrote the best melodies. And I’m a sucker for Rihanna.” “I think I’ve enjoyed performing Vivaldi the most,” Marchant added. “It’s challenging and interesting. But a favorite pop star is hard for me to name, as I have many.”
For Well-Strung’s performance at the Lensic, the repertoire will indeed be varied, as Bagnell said, designed to appeal to a wide-ranging audience. Wadleigh cited another reason the concert will be noteworthy. “Often, from the perspective of both the audience and the performers, pop concerts are viewed as joyous and fun bouts of entertainment, while classical concerts are viewed as solemn cultural acts that are taken in with great deference and rigidity,” he said. “The vastness of the classical repertoire and its genius is, unfortunately, not made accessible to most audiences. With Well-Strung, we have the opportunity to present what I believe are some of the most beautiful parts of humanity to audiences that might not typically get to engage with such content.”