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.”

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