Time for Three, a classically-trained trio that blends classical, country, gypsy and jazz, stand in their traditional triangle formation on the Hilbert Circle Theater stage - violinist Zach de Pue on stage right facing violinist Nick Kendall on stage left, double-bassist Ranaan Meyer upstage behind the two, directly facing the audience.
As de Pue calmly but intently fiddles through another impossible riff, Kendall waits, poised at a quarter-turn between the audience and de Pue, absorbing de Pue's energy before negotiating another equally difficult riff.
Behind the two violinists, Meyer grimaces and bobs his head, deep in the groove.
This is Time for Three's first Indianapolis concert following their three-year appointment as ensemble in residence at the ISO. "Concerto 4-3," written for Time for Three by Jennifer Higdon, represents one side of what the group, which transcends genres and scenes, can do. It incorporates American folk music - bluegrass, jazz, blues - into an art music setting that gestures towards the open plains sound of Copland and Bernstein and the more European pleasures of Stravinsky and Bartok.
Time for Three wasn't at the theater that night to only execute the concerto. The members, classically trained but interested in trends way outside the academy, are also showmen interested in moving the audience, in giving them an emotionally-charged, musically-impressive experience that they won't forget on the way home.
So, like any good soloists, the three virtuosi in the band take an encore on a piece that reminds the listener that those violins can also function as fiddles: the bluegrass classic "Orange Blossom Special." But because these are enormously talented young men - de Pue is the concertmaster of the ISO, and both Kendall and Meyer are in-demand soloists who could have an orchestra seat if they weren't so busy doing their own thing - this is bluegrass as you've rarely heard it before.
Meyer is even more demonstrative during the opening of the song, swaying back with some bent opening notes like James Brown stepping into a hot tub that is much too hot. De Pue and Meyer urge each other on, having themselves a good old-fashioned fiddle-off for which it might take days to decide the winner.
It's after a performance like that - one that's both crowd-pleasing and challenging, sweet and savory - that one understands why Simon Rattle, the principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, called the gentlemen in the trio "three benevolent monsters, monsters of ability and technique surely... but also conveyors of an infectious joy that I find both touching and moving."
And Indianapolis is fortunate that these three monsters have elected to spend a few years in town, that de Pue will take on another role with the ISO, and that Kendall (who's currently living in New York City) and Meyer (Philadelphia) will pencil Indy into in their extraordinarily busy schedules.
On a mission: Zach de Pue
Zach de Pue has the plain, blond-haired, blue-eyed good looks of a Mormon just back from mission. And he does proselytize with the ardor of a true believer - in this case, for the classical music experience. He thinks Americans have been deprived of the opportunity to appreciate art music - from the beginning in the educational system - and hopes that through his role as a liminal figure, he can subtly reintroduce classical music to a pop generation.
De Pue uses his visit to a European Hooters at age 19 - and this is where the Mormon comparison falls apart, because de Pue has a bit of the frat boy to him - as an example of the drastic difference between Europe and America where classical music is concerned. He and some friends from the Curtis Institute of Music - the Philadelphia-based conservatory where the members of Time for Three met as students - were in Europe to perform Beethoven's Fourth Symphony, and they wondered if their waitress knew about the venue they were playing.
"She knew where we were playing, she knew the composer - she knew who Schubert was, she knew his music," de Pue says, as he summons up this memory of surprise. "This is just a regular girl who has nothing to do with classical music.
"We are really starting from a more primitive point than even 30 years ago," he notes, then emphasizes that the classical world will have to take things slow to reverse this de-evolution. "We just want to give our music in small bits, because obviously our music is in large chunks, a full meal; we just want to give them a taste so that they aurally start latching their life on to what an orchestra is, because it's non-existent in many people's lives."
That visit to Europe marked the beginning, the pre-history, of the Time for Three story, when the first two members began playing together. But it helps to start from de Pue's beginning to understand how Time for Three came about.
On the Elks Lodge circuit
"A normal childhood does not relate to ours," de Pue says of growing up with his brothers in Bowling Green, Ohio, playing violin under a music professor father who raised his sons, practically from the cradle, to be professional musicians. "We weren't jack of all trades; we weren't doing eight different things and experimenting. We each started on violin when we were five ... I hated it."
De Pue and his three older brothers didn't just spend hours practicing at home; their dad also thought it important to put them before audiences, and Zach, the youngest de Pue, eventually became a member of the the de Pue Family Musicians.
"I can't tell you how many Elks Lodges I played at," he says, although things took off soon enough, and the band played opening gigs for the Lettermen and Marie Osmond. The group was something of a vaudeville throwback, playing folk tunes, fiddle tunes, singing a little barber shop harmony, executing a Bach fugue. (The brothers, who all remain professional musicians, recently reunited as the De Pue Brothers Band, and continue to perform whenever schedules align.)
It wasn't until de Pue won a competition with the Toledo Symphony - which he insists he shouldn't have won - that he began to find playing the violin gratifying, that the shouting matches between him and his dad ceased. Some of the de Pue brothers accompanied Zach on that trip to Europe that included the Hooters visit.
Nick Kendall, another Curtis student and a free-thinking violinist raised on the Suzuki method, got wind of them, and heard that they were playing bluegrass fiddle tunes.
"They started playing in the streets, bluegrass, country fiddle," Kendall remembers. "And I said, 'Oh my god! You guys do this, too!' It was a very exciting moment. So they allowed me to play with them, and that was the first time I started hanging out with Zach."
Soon Kendall was on the search for a bassist. He went to some gigs Ranaan Meyer played at Philadelphia-area jazz clubs, and asked him to join the group.
And that's how it started, with the three just hanging out, jamming between Curtis Orchestra rehearsals. And like at any jazz jam session, the members of this pickup group pushed each other to new heights of invention and virtuosity. "Zach and I would see how fast we could play the Concerto for Two Violins by Bach - swung, with Ranaan doing a swing bass line," Kendall remembers, noting that the Bach concerto remains a part of their repertoire.
Meyer was hooked from the first gig. "There was this incredible, fun energy that none of us had ever experienced. Time for Three was born because of that, because you can't deny that... I always tell people the sex is good." Meyer pauses, then clarifies. "I am not physically attracted to Nick or Zach - that's not what I'm saying - but the music is the reason that we're together. After that, we worked on everything else, building a healthy relationship."
Thunder and lightning
Only two of the three were there for Time for Three's dramatic break-out show, which came during a - cue the sound effects - lightning-induced power failure at Philadelphia's Mann Center that delayed a July 2003 performance by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Both de Pue and Meyer were performing as members of the Orchestra that night, and they seized the opportunity make their backstage shenanigans the impromptu main event, something like the bush leaguer finally getting that cup of coffee in the majors.
The captive crowd was treated to a fiddle repertoire that included "Jerusalem's Ridge," "Ragtime Annie" and what became a Time for Three staple, "Orange Blossom Special." And they were pleased.
"That experience of the power outage was an opportunity for a large classical audience - the largest classical audience, for Beethoven Ninth - to hear music that they would have never gone in search of," de Pue explains. "Literally as the evening evolved, you could see people dancing in the aisles because they had never heard this stuff."
De Pue goes on to make a bolder point: "I think it opened up a world of instrumentalists now that we can consider bringing into the classical setting. It may not have been the door, but it was one of the doors - I think Yo-Yo (Ma) playing (on the roots-classical project Appalachian Spring
) with Edgar (Meyer, no relation to Ranaan) and Mark (O'Connor) was another door. But it just started proving that this was good music and let's start taking an approach to it that evolves it from roots to higher art without getting too hoity-toity."
I put it to de Pue that that last sentence is an excellent way to sum up Time for Three's approach in general. He laughs, maybe not sure if "hoity-toity" should be used in a mission statement.
The dreamer: Nick Kendall
"I just want to say that I'm walking through the streets where The Truman Show
was filmed," Nick Kendall tells me via cell phone. Is it a little surreal? "It's totally surreal."
Kendall is calling from Destin, Florida, where he's performing two versions of the "Four Seasons" with the Symphonia Gulf Coast Orchestra: Vivaldi's and an update by Argentine bandoneon player Astor Piazolla. Maybe that program would be a surprise to the ordinary subscription-holder, but it's certainly of a piece with Time for Three's mission - a little of the old, the established, the venerated, paired with something respectful of the tradition but retooled for indigenous music and instruments.
While he's taking on the role of producing the first two Happy Hour concerts, and is in Indianapolis enough to have a temporary office at the ISO, Kendall has an enormously busy schedule that sends his around the country, doing, he says, "stuff that I've wanted to do for a long time."
There's the conductor-less East Coast Chamber Orchestra, a group which he co-founded. The Dryden String Quartet, another family band comprised of Kendall, his sister, his cousin and a close family friend (all three in Time for Three play professionally with family members). And his active solo work, with Destin only the latest stop on a schedule that's booked two years in advance.
Kendall quickly realized that he would have to make his own scene in the classical world. "After leaving Curtis and going into the professional scene, I got depressed, seeing the professional, union aspect of the world beyond the walls of Curtis," he notes. "I'd do a pickup orchestra gig on the side, and people there looked upset; they did not want to be there playing this music... "
And Kendall has always made his own groups when the available options weren't satisfying. Maybe his only concession to mainstream taste was recently cutting back an afro that sacrificed in style everything he may have gained in height.
"I'm half-Japanese, and when I went to Japan when I was young, I heard taiko drummers during a summer cultural festival," Kendall remembers. "My parents told me that, while other kids may have been scared of the sound of a drum, I was drawn into it. Back home, in middle school, I wanted a drum set, but my parents said no, not in the house. So I just made it out of paint cans, garbage cans. Then I formed my own trash can drumming band, and we used to play on the street corners of Georgetown in Washington D.C. on the weekends."
That pick-up drumming group evolved, by the time he reached Curtis, into Baraka, a group that offered two disparate experiences: all strings before intermission, then all trash can drumming in the second half.
De Pue sums up Kendall's approach: "Nick brings a rules-free attitude, a complete open canvas to everything, in a manner that allows him to have a lot of ideas. A lot of ideas that he doesn't necessarily realize at the time, that push the envelope... It's strictly based on how he feels."
Kendall is a little less rhapsodic when he talks of himself, noting that de Pue keeps his imagination in line: "If anybody's gonna fault me, maybe myself, it's because I'm too high on coffee all the time. But I'm relying on Zach's complete knowledge of structure and deep musical instincts to be able to weed out BS from what will actually work."
On the road
Following the breakthrough that was the Philadelphia power-outage show, Time for Three began to figure out what it would mean to be an actual group, particularly given each member's individual goals - and the lure of established jobs offered by orchestras after graduation.
The band tried out one model, that of the touring rock band, stacking up shows one upon the other for months (148 dates over one year), touring the country in a conversion van.
"It's amazing that we didn't commit murder," Kendall says of that period of intense togetherness. "It isn't natural ... but you have to do it; it's kind of like hazing. You have to go through a certain process to get your stripes."
But they got the chance to see the country, and to meet friends they didn't know they had. The Texas high schooler footballers who were huge fiddle fans, for instance. "The common denominator through the whole thing was that people respond when the thing on stage is sincere, real, exciting and fun," Kendall notes. "No matter if we're fighting or tired or whatever, for some reason, whenever we get on stage and play with each other, it always works."
And the band picked up some well-known friends, Paul Newman, for instance. In preparing to play the wedding of Claire Newman, the daughter of Paul and Joanne Woodward, they got a request from Cool Hand Luke himself. "Paul said, 'You know, Claire really loves the Beatles," Kendall remembers. "Is there any way, during the ceremony, you guys can play some Beatles?"
Thus, after some deliberation, "Blackbird" was added to the group's repertoire. He says the band tried to play a rock ode - to stay true to the Beatles - but ended up writing something in a classical music vibe. The piece is available on the band's second album, 2006's We burned this for you!
, which followed on a self-titled 2002 album.
During the endless tour, the band continued to work on their relationship. "We know that we've got each other's backs, we know what each person is supposed to do, musically but also in character, and that's something I can rely on," Kendall says. "I think it's allowed for the three of us to grow as people because we've been there for each other. We're not afraid to call each other out on anything ... And it's helped us on our own individual path."
Dancing with the bass: Ranaan Meyer
Ranaan Meyer has been asked a few times to tone it down. Teachers asked him: Do you really need to make a face just to bow the bass? Can't you keep your legs still?
But like Glenn Gould vocalizing through the fugues, Thelonious Monk dancing in a circle or Keith Jarrett experiencing ecstasy with every chord, Meyer says he needs to express himself physically to play at his best.
And he found some like-minded teachers: the bassist Rufus Reid, for instance, who, in order to teach him how to get his arm, back and shoulders into the pulse of the music, grabbed his hand and duct-taped his fingers into a fist, leaving only the first finger free.
"I don't look in the mirror; I don't practice how to play," he says, reached in Philadelphia on an off-morning. "Sometimes when I'm watching a video, I'm laughing my butt off at myself, thinking, who in the heck would want to watch this?"
But it's become an instinct which can be exploited elsewhere: "I can't dance unless I pretend that I have a bass in my hand."
Not surprisingly, for someone so inspired by the dance, and for a bassist, Meyer maintains that the groove is one of the most important elements of music, and something that's sometimes lost in a classical setting. "Human beings need that feeling of pulse and drive," he notes.
Do Time for Three have that groove? "It's something we naturally fall into; Nick, Zach and I, we groove together. I don't think we'd be together if it didn't groove... It's the same mentality as a garage band, where it's all for one and one for all."
Like his cohorts, Meyer was bound to be a musician from the beginning. "As a little boy, when I watched my elders get up on stage, I thought they were the most famous people - more famous than Pavarotti," he says. "I wanted to be like that, I wanted to be like my brother or mother or father."
And he's come to play with those elders, even as a bandleader: his mom, Norma Meyer, plays piano in the Ranaan Meyer Band, a classically-oriented ensemble that's just as eclectic as Time for Three.
Meyer is perhaps more involved in education than the other members of Time for Three. He organizes three summer camps - a full-scholarship double-bass camp called Wabass, a tuition-based double-bass camp for those who don't make the selective cut for WaBass and a classical jam band camp, where students playing the range of classical instruments learn to improvise, compose, arrange and perform in different styles of music. He also teaches privately on the side, brings his jam band program to high schools and takes up work as a sideman, in jazz settings and with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Like Kendall, Meyer is looking outside the classical music hierarchy, trying to create a different scene for younger players. "The standard job opportunities are to win a job in an orchestra, be a chamber musician, be a soloist, if you're fortunate enough, or a teacher," he says. "I'm trying to create a broader industry than just those jobs for double-bassists and for musicians in general."
Meyer has come to be known as the composer for Time for Three, although that's a title that takes some qualification. For one, Meyer has historically been hesitant to call himself a composer: "I've always known of composers as being Mahler or Beethoven or Brahms ... I would always laugh it off uncomfortably."
But more than that, his pieces for Time for Three start off as little more than a lead sheet, a theme, maybe some variations, never a through-written piece. So a piece starts with Meyer, and then the band figures it out together in rehearsal, locking things in when they work. The arrangements are largely settled when they get to the stage, but the material linking one piece to another, providing a listening experience without breaks, is entirely improvised.
A new album
Three Fervent Travelers
, Time for Three's album released this year on E1 Entertainment, is, according to Meyer, an encapsulation of everything Time for Three has done to this point. The best pieces have risen to the top of the album, and it represents "so many different styles, so many different influences that have found their way over time, organically, to our music."
The CD comes out at a time that Time for Three have taken the time for their music to settle, to take a step back and consider their goals after intense years of touring.
De Pue sums up that goal this way: "To celebrate American music in a performing arts setting with the same attention to detail you would get from a group playing a Beethoven string quartet."
Meyer tries this one out: "Victor Borge meets Rolling Stones - rock band mentality meets classical chops."
Kendall notes that the ISO residency was a godsend for the group, and is effusive when he thinks of all the things the group can do while working with an orchestra. "We come from the house of classical music. We come from that art form and believe in it. That's just in our blood; our values are there. However, we have a dynamic and uncensored way of appealing to other people who may not know how to relate to that art form, and especially the experience at a concert hall...We love playing with an orchestra and we love playing in a concert hall; we love having that captive audience. So to be able to use the symphony as a platform is just extraordinary."
Kendall gets at the symbiotic relationship the ISO has formed with Time for Three. Through the residency, the ISO will work with a young, creative group that might appeal beyond the core subscription base, but isn't so free-thinking that they're going to throw a bomb, figuratively, into the orchestra hall, or so inclined towards polemics that they might reject particular ideas, genres or eras outright. And Time for Three gets a steady gig, the chance to preach the classical gospel to a wide audience and a laboratory in which to experiment on new hybrids, using whatever materials they like from the American music experience.
The week of the November performance of Higdon's "Concerto 4-3," Time for Three and a couple collaborators - conductor Steve Hackman, a friend of the group's from Curtis days with similarly eclectic taste, and arranger William Brohn (Wicked
) - locked themselves in a room at the Circle Theatre, and set themselves a goal of programming the first installments of Happy Hour, the occasional series that the Symphony had established to reach out to a younger crowd, with earlier-in-the-day concerts, a more accessible repertoire, cheaper tickets and more youthful accoutrements (video, dancers, a booth selling White Castle).
Kendall says that sometime during the process, "We realized that the Eroica (Beethoven's third symphony) was in the same key as "Fix You" by Coldplay." And not only that, but at a certain point in the score, "Beethoven's Third goes literally into the same notation as 'Fix You.'"
It was a fortunate moment, and made the question asked on promotional materials for the show - Who says Beethoven and Coldplay don't mix? - more than just an empty reference intended to draw in the young people.
From there, the planning committee - surrounded by stacks of CDs, 3 Macs, a stereo and their instruments - put together the rest of the program. John Adams' brisk, percussive "Short Ride in a Fast Machine" kicking off the show, then Thomas Newman's score for the film Meet Joe Black
, Debussy's "Claire de Lune" towards the close.
The Happy Hour show is proof enough that Time for Three can appeal to uninitiated audiences. But there are many sides to the group.
Say you want new music, defined as synonymous with contemporary classical? You got it, with that meaty Higdon concerto and upcoming pieces, one written by of the greatest living American composers, William Bolcom; another by Chris Brubeck, the jazz-inspired son of Dave Brubeck.
De Pue says one of the group's goals is "to start celebrating music created here and creating a classical music experience around that style."
You want your roots music, your fiddle tunes, mined for everything they're worth? Time for Three keeps "Orange Blossom Special" in repertory, and most of their original songs incorporate some recognizable American folk music, expanding on Copland and Thomson's groundbreaking work.
And say you're reading this piece and haven't heard of any of the above names? Well, you're missing out, but none of the guys in Time for Three are at all snobs, and there's a seat waiting for you at the next Happy Hour.
And of course, those three options don't exhaust the ways of viewing Time for Three, or the scenes the group can fit into. An October 2009 Washington Post
feature on the "alt-classical music" lumps Time for Three with other young musicians exploring music outside of the canon and academy, suggesting that they're following in the path of groups like the Kronos Quartet or Bang on a Can All-Stars. The piece notes that these new music groups aren't on "some lunatic fringe of experimentalism," but that "the spirit of these groups is permeating, and invigorating, the whole classical experience."
The article calls Kendall the "poster child" for a breed of "super-musicians" who bridge genres, and have the capacity to play just about anything, in just about any scene, deftly and authentically.
And while that "alt-classical" scene has more established homes in major cities - the nightclub Le Poisson Rouge in New York City, for instance, will host violinist Hillary Hahn as well as whatever indie rock band is passing through - that relationship between classical, rock and any other genre is being explored by artists on labels like Asthmatic Kitty, by groups like Orkestra Projekt and in places like Butler's composition program and IUPUI's electronic music program.
And Time for Three could be a force, particularly since they're staying for at least three years, in uniting all those "alt-classical" threads around town. It's good to hear that de Pue is getting comfortable: "This is my third year living here, and honestly, I'm now starting to feel great, not just good, but great about here."
And the group has enough gumption to surpass whatever expectations people have for a night at the symphony, for new music coming from the city. "We're a team, just like a sports team gunning for a major championship," Meyer notes. "We're always pushing each other, and there's three of us, so if one guy doesn't want to work, the other two are there to kick him in the butt. We're not trying to compete with anybody else. But we're competing with ourselves; we want to make sure that the audience is getting the most incredible experience as listeners as possible in a musical environment."