July 2007

A Conversation with David Ying of the Ying Quartet

July 31, 2007 21:49

The Ying Quartet (left to right): Phil, Janet, David, Tim
Photo Credit: waltercolleyimages.com/

BRUNSWICK, MAINE--When my string quartet, Seraphina, traveled to the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition this spring, we were all looking forward to meeting David Ying, the cellist with the Ying Quartet, an all-sibling string ensemble (our quartet is comprised of two sets of sisters.) We knew that, given the opportunity, we'd have a lot of questions for Mr. Ying.

We talked with him after the competition, and he gave our quartet both generous praise and constructive criticism. He also talked with us about what it means to play chamber music with the people most closely related to you in the world—your siblings.

The Yings grew up in Chicago and started playing together professionally in 1992 when they won an National Endowment of the Arts grant designed to support chamber music in rural America. The Yings spent the year in residence in the town of Jessup, Iowa (population 2000) and their chamber concerts were so popular throughout the community that they were featured in national and international media, including The Strad magazine. The following year they won the Naumburg Chamber Music Award, and soon the Yings became established as one of the premier American string quartets, performing on concert series and at music festivals in the U.S. and abroad.

The Ying Quartet's programming is creative, often incorporating works by American composers. Their current project, which they call "Musical Dim Sum" involves selections of works for string quartets by composers of Chinese heritage living throughout the world.

The Yings also have what is possibly the most clever website of any string quartet, featuring this drawing by the late cartoonist Al Hirschfeld, whom the Yings played for in his New York apartment in 2003, towards the end of his life.

My quartet is currently at Bowdoin International Music Festival, but the Yings, who teach there in the early part of the summer, have already left for their next round of festivals. So I caught up with David in by email to ask him in more detail about life in his quartet.

David Ying

Caeli: One of the most striking things about you guys, aside from your fabulous playing the fact that you're siblings. What's the order age-wise here?

David: I'm the oldest, followed in birth order by Tim (our first violinist), Phil (our violist), and Janet (our second violinist). We also have another brother, Dan, who was a bass player when we were growing up. He's in between Tim and Phil in age.

Caeli: How did the four of you get interested in playing the instruments you play? Was there nudging from your parents?

David: Our parents were interested in us all becoming pianists, so in a sense we disappointed them by becoming string players! And, though three of us did begin music lessons on piano, we all fairly soon start string instruments. We enjoyed the increased opportunities to make music with friends that playing a string instrument afforded. I'm pretty sure our parents imagined that we'd become (hopefully good) amateur musicians, while we supported ourselves and our families with more reliable day jobs as doctors or teachers. Although they were very encouraging of our music when we were young, I think it is still a surprise to them that four of us wound up as professional musicians

Caeli: A lot of times when a family has a bunch of kids all playing classical music, the parents start them out all on the same instrument (as happened in my family of four girls we all began on violin, which is a shame, since we had the makings of a quartet right there!) But the four of you played the appropriate instruments to form a quartet. Was that your parents thinking ahead?

David: My parents are very smart people, but they didn't have any idea that the string quartet is such a great and musically significant ensemble when we were young. (We had to teach them that!) So we wound up on the different instruments kind of by chance, mainly trying to play something that the others in the family were not already playing. It's funny to me how now everyone seems like they were meant to play the instrument they ended up on. Maybe it's kind of like pet-owners starting to look like their pets.

Caeli: How did you get along as kids? Did you enjoy playing together?

David: I think we did get along fairly well when we were young. We learned how to play together (not music!), and disagree with each other, and still get along at the end of the day. These are skills we continue to use every day in our quartet. Our parents definitely raised us as a close family, and I'm sure that has helped us to be able to work together successfully. Interestingly, we did not play music often together as kids, since our age difference seemed much larger in those days than it does now, and also because we were lucky enough to have many friends our own ages who enjoyed playing music, making it pretty easy to find chamber music partners who we were not related to!

Caeli: Did you all go to the same conservatory?

David: We went to different schools at first, some to the Eastman School of Music and, some to Juilliard, and Phil was even an economics major at Harvard. But eventually we all went to the Eastman School of Music at the same time, which was when we began playing together. It didn't hurt that the quartet in residence at the time was the Cleveland Quartet, who in addition to being an amazing quartet were our teachers and mentors.

Caeli: What are your individual personalities like, music-wise, and how do they fit together?

David: Wow! This is a tough question. Maybe you should ask our parents. Well, I'll give it a try. Our personalities as musicians, and as people, are pretty different, as you'd probably find in any family. So there's plenty of disagreement in any of our rehearsals. Sometimes I wonder how we ever get it together in the end! But I think when all is said and done, differences are good in a quartet- they make chemistry, and the combination of ideas, feelings, personalities always seems better than anything I would have done on my own. So the trick is just to make sure you complement each other, and try to be neither carbon copies nor musical enemies of each other.

Caeli: What's it like to be in business together as adults?

David: Funny enough, the few times that we played music together in public as kids, there was money involved. The five of us had a standing job playing for the Northwestern School of Education's commencement each June. We got pretty expert at stringing out—no pun intended— Pomp and Circumstance for as long as we needed it. So now, we're just doing that a lot more often (and we've expanded our repertoire too!). Sometimes music doesn't really seem like a job, we get so much enjoyment from it, and mostly we're just trying to bring that same enjoyment to others, whether by performing or teaching. But sometimes it is definitely a job, and one we have to accomplish together, no less. We try hard to balance our professional demands with our personal family lives, which of course involve more than just us siblings.

Caeli: When my quartet, which is two pairs of siblings, talked to you at Fischoff, you pointed out that sometimes we play as though we know one another too well. This was an amazing comment to hear, and I'd like to know if you can elaborate and tell us if you struggled with that issue as a quartet, and if so how you deal with it?

David: Yes, it is something that we've talked about. Sometimes we've thought that things came together too easily, and that because of our common backgrounds and instruction that we didn't let the music struggle enough. It doesn't seem to be a problem now though. Some days it seems like we can discuss different ways of doing the tiniest musical detail for hours. It can be good in rehearsal to not necessarily anticipate how someone is going to play, or to play the way you usually do too. Anything in life that gets so comfortable that you take it for granted is going to lose its meaning and importance on some level. And I know that's not something I would want to do with playing music.

Caeli: The four of you are now in residency at Eastman. How do you manage your teaching schedules with working together in the quartet?

David: Being resident ensemble and on the faculty at Eastman is an extremely important part of our lives. It is our home base in many ways. Working with the talented students at Eastman is very enriching, and grounding. We have to practice what we preach, and vice versa. I have benefited from wonderful teaching myself, and I find it very satisfying to pass along what I've been privileged to receive. Plus, having a teaching position makes sure that we have time for our families too, so that we don't have the pressure of doing all of work away from home. We never travel for more than a week at a time, so that we can see our families and our students as much as possible.

Caeli: Do you collaborate with your wife [pianist Elinor Freer]? How is it different playing with her than it is with your siblings?

David: I do play with Elinor whenever we get the chance, and I enjoy it very much! Music is such a wonderful thing to share with someone else, no matter if they are related to you or not. I can't imagine another activity that involves so much interaction with another person, so for me it's natural to want to play music with my wife, family and friends. I don't really find it that different, in the end, to play with anyone, as long as we are enjoying the interaction.

Caeli: Do you have any kids yourself?

David: My wife and I have a one-year-old daughter, and Tim has two children: a 4-year-old daughter and a 2-year-old son. They are the best!

Caeli: I can imagine that both Ying generations will be playing chamber music together one day.

David: The quartet kids so far are a little young to be playing instruments, but I certainly hope that my daughter grows up to enjoy music, and I hope she would want to play something too! I also hope that someday sitting down to play music with each other and for ourselves (for fun only!) is something we'd all naturally do.

Caeli: What projects have you been doing recently? Anything exciting coming up in the future?

David: Recording has occupied a lot of our time lately, and we're excited about it since we'd kind of avoided it for many years. This spring we released two recordings- the Tchaikovsky String Quartets and the Souvenir de Florence (with our former teachers James Dunham and Paul Katz) on Telarc, and the second installment of our LifeMusic commissions, titled United States: LifeMusic 2 on Quartz. We have been commissioning these pieces for string quartet that reflect contemporary American life for some years now, and we're continuing with that ongoing project. We've been fortunate to work with so many wonderful, creative composers- there's no feeling like the excitement of discovering a work that's just been written, for little old us, even! We also just finished recording several small works by Chinese-American composers for Telarc, that will be released sometime in the future. We call that project a "musical dim-sum."


Caeli: I know you're in residency for the first half of summer at Bowdoin International Music Festival. How did you choose Bowdoin? Are you at any other festivals during the summer?

David: We enjoy Bowdoin because there are many fantastic students from a very wide variety of backgrounds, and because chamber music is a central activity there. It's pretty interesting to work with a quartet, for example, made up of four players from completely differing cultures, types of training, and personalities. And to see some students who are highly experienced in chamber music- some far more than I was at their age- and then the next hour to be helping young students who might be playing in one of their first chamber music groups ever. We also teach at Aspen Music Festival, as well as make brief playing appearances at several other festivals. My wife and I also direct the Skaneateles Festival, where I can always count on a visit from a certain string quartet that looks like me!

2 replies

Philadelphia Youth Orchestra Tours Brazil

July 29, 2007 10:06

The Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, our chaperones, and Maestro Scaglione pose before the famous Sugarloaf, Rio de Janeiro

Every summer, countless American youth orchestras, choirs, and bands embark on international concert tours designed to give young musicians some exposure to the world outside their own comfort zone, and for the musicians themselves to act as ambassadors for our own musical culture. Dozens of my own friends have gone on tour with their youth orchestras, and I've heard how exciting it is to travel and play together in foreign cities. So, this fall, when I learned that the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra would be touring Brazil in early July, I was dying to go. I'm particularly interested in Brazilian music and culture, having studied capoeira for several years. And who would pass up the opportunity for a music-filled trip to of the most exciting countries in the world with fifty of their best friends?

But my parents said that orchestra tour would be expensive and that I wouldn't get that much out of it because intensive orchestral playing wouldn't be good for my technique. Finally they agreed to let me go—reluctantly—after I proposed to pay for the trip out of my own savings. I was thrilled. Ours was to be a fairly intensive tour—seven concerts in eleven days, playing quite a bit of new repertoire from our regular season. To prepare us, our conductor, Maestro Louis Scaglione, called for a month of intensive rehearsals, as much as six hours a day on weekends, after our regular performance season ended.

Like most youth orchestras, we're a little spoiled because our usual audiences are predisposed to love us unconditionally. Our farewell concert in Philadelphia's swanky Union League was packed with the usual mix of parents, grandparents, board members and friends. Under the baton of Maestro Scaglione, we performed one of the several programs we would use on tour: the overture to Mozart's opera La Clemenza di Tito, Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, and the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with our concertmaster Francesca dePasquale as soloist. We got our usual standing ovation, and felt pretty good about the performance. Our conductor and chaperones assured us that the Brazilian audiences were going to love us, too. But I had to wonder what kind of reception would we get from a hall filled with total strangers.

We flew as group, directly from Dulles Airport in D.C. to the now-infamous Sao Paulo airport. Because we were on a commercial flight, there was no crating for the instruments, so the cellos and basses were placed in the hold, in flight bags, along with the rest of the luggage. This caused some anxiety, particularly among the cellists who are used to bringing their instruments on board and buckling them into seat belts. We small instrumentalists felt lucky to be able to carry our instruments into the cabin with us. When we landed, we learned the cello belonging to my friend Genevieve Tabby was missing. It had traveled on its own to Rio de Janeiro!

Basses, left, and celloes, right, lined up in their flight cases.

Fortunately, the errant cello was soon located and returned to our hotel in the wee hours of the next morning, just in time for Genevieve to perform with the rest of her section in the first concert of our tour, in the Teatro Municipal of the city of São José dos Campos.

That first concert in Brazil turned out to be one of the most exciting nights of my life! The venue itself seemed rather strange to us at first, from a cultural perspective. Instead of being in a fancy concert hall with wooden and red velvet chairs, the auditorium was situated in a shopping mall. The hall itself looked like a movie theater, with big, comfortable reclining seats.

During our performance, the audience behaved more casually than audiences at home. Although they were attentive, they seemed more physically relaxed than the audiences we are used to. They behaved as if they were watching a movie or a spectacle, rather than somberly partaking of classical music. They tended to clap between movements and express their appreciation without reserve—which didn't bother me a bit. At the end they leapt to their feet and cheered. My friends and I looked around at each other across the stage, amazed and delighted that they liked our performance so much! We are used to playing for audiences who are pre-disposed to liking us -- our parents and friends – yet no audience had ever reacted this warmly to our playing.

The next day, after some sightseeing, we boarded our busses for a trip to the city of Santos where we gave an evening performance at the Teatro Coliseu. While we were warming up in the girls' dressing room backstage, my friend and fellow violinist Charlotte Nicholas noticed a strange, burning smell. We looked up and saw smoke rising from my brand-new BAM High-Tech violin case. I snatched the case away from the vanity lamps by the mirror, but it was too late. A huge and very odd-looking hole had burned its way into the exterior of my case!

The hole left an impression of the light bulb in my brand-new case!

This concert had a younger audience than the first, and a group of adolescent boys in the first few rows kept pointing at the girls in the orchestra and whispering and laughing as we played. We weren't sure what to make of their behavior, but after the concert we found them waiting at the stage door where our buses were parked. They kept pointing to names on the printed program and trying to match us with our names. They were quite friendly and we attempted to hold a conversation with them, but since our Portuguese was even worse than their English, we all ended up laughing.


The second violin section in rehearsal.
Photo credit: Jared Cartwright.

The next day, we gave a late-morning performance at the Teatro Cultura Artistica in Sao Paulo. This was our concertmaster Francesca's final solo with the full Tchaikovsky. (She would play the first movement at our last concert at the Samba School.) We were so proud of her for performing the entire concerto four times in such a short span. She's an amazing technical player with great stamina and clear musical ideas.

It was night when we checked into our hotel in Rio after a six-hour bus trip. In the dark, the stately Hotel Gloria with its big, dark rooms seemed creepy. Our first hotel had been modern and shiny, but Hotel Gloria , a faded old beauty, was classy. It was the biggest hotel I've ever seen– there was a heliport on the roof, and enough room for the entire
orchestra and our chaperones to be distributed throughout only two floors. In the bright light of morning, our rooms seemed much less intimidating, and we ran through the halls to each others' rooms, excited for the great day that we had planned. By now our chaperones were undoubtedly weary, but we were as rambunctious as ever, just getting our second wind!


Cristo Redntor statue at Corcovado

The next day we made our obligatory visit to the Corcovado Hill with its iconic Cristo Redentor statue, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World! As we rode the cog train on the way up the steep mountain, we got to hear our first taste of live Samba music! A band of four musicians joined us on the train, playing: a small instrument like a banjo, a drum, a washboard/screwdriver combination, with the last one singing and dancing. The music was so exciting, it had us all clapping and jumping around in our seats. At one point, the singer invited us to dance samba with him. Of course we couldn't refuse!

PYO and samba musicians mixing it up on the cog train.

Later that day we made our way to the Copacabana beach (what's a trip to Rio without a visit to Copacabana?) We spent the afternoon away from our instruments, frolicking in the surf, enjoying the beautiful scenery, and dodging the hang gliders landing from their flight off a nearby mountain.


PYO members dodging the hang gliders at Copacabana Beach.

After a couple days off from performing we were pumped for another concert. This one was in the town of Petropolis where we performed as part of the Petropolis Winter Festival. There met our piano soloist Sylvia Thereza for the first time and rehearsed the Schumann Piano Concerto with her for about an hour. It was astounding how well she fit with the orchestra after so little rehearsal. She's only a little older than some of the kids in PYO, so she was a real inspiration to us.


Our first rehearsal with Brazilian pianist Sylvia Therman.

Next day, we were bussed to the stately Rio Teatro Municipal for our second performance with Ms. Therman.The Rio Teatro Municipal, despite its ordinary-sounding name, was the fanciest and classiest venue of our tour. The audience members themselves were also different from the other audiences we had encountered on the tour. This was the high-society crowd of Rio de Janeiro, and there was no clapping between movements. Although I would not describe our reception as cold, it was clear that these people were more reserved and less outwardly responsive to our playing. In fact, the atmosphere in this hall was similar to what we were used to back at home.

The next morning we returned to the Teatro Municipal for our last official concert in Brazil -- a children's concert for several school groups, middle school through high school. This concert was our most informal, and we narrowed down the repertoire a bit to appeal the best to their interest and attention span. We played the Overture to Handel's Royal Fireworks and Brandenburg No. 2, the first movement of the Tchaikovsky, and the last movement of the Eroica. For most the kids in this audience, this was their first time seeing a classical music performed live – or hearing classical music at all. The response we got was amazing – these kids loved our music! We were so glad and honored to be the ones to present this genre of music to them for the first time. After the concert they rushed up to us outside the hall, asking us to pose for pictures with them.

Mobbed after the children's concert. We loved it!
Photo credit: David Cline.

Our final day in Brazil was also our most gratifying. The tour guides told us, "We are now going to a slum!" which seemed to like seemed like an odd and surprising admission – maybe it was a translation problem. Where they actually took us was a samba school filled with Brazilian teenagers working on their dance and instrumental skills over their school's winter break. We did a short performance for them and then they performed Samba music for us – it was loud and exciting! Then we all danced, even Maestro Scaglione!

Philadelphia Youth Orchestra onstage at the samba school.
Photo credit: Ryan Jin Touhill.

PYO members dancing at the samba school. Left to right: samba student, violinist Coral Pistilli, samba instructor and me.

Throughout our trip, we ate at marvelous restaurants, but I regret the strict instructions from our chaperones not to eat any raw vegetables or fruit that doesn't peel. Too bad, because the fruits and vegetables offered at every meal looked beautiful. While in Rio, I tried my first taste of octopus (which was backed up by some encouragement from my friend Mike Dahlberg, PYO's principal cellist – "You're in a new place, you have to try new food!" he chided.) Then I tried rabbit, with support from my friend violinist Sabrina Tabby, Genevieve's twin and member of our quartet, Seraphina. Though I'm not sure I'm adding either of those to my list of favorite foods (the octopus still had all the suction cups on it!) I'm glad I tried them!

At that night's farewell dinner, while standing in line at the buffet, I was astonished to see that the woman standing in line behind me was none other than violinist Sarah Chang, in town herself for a performance. Of course, it is less astonishing that Ms. Chang would have joined us for dinner if you know that, like us, she is a native Philadelphian, and has even soloed with our orchestra in the past. Still, her surprise appearance that night caused a flurry of excitement, especially among our orchestra's violin section, if not the brass players, who were heard murmuring among themselves, "Sarah who?"

Sarah who?
Photo credit: Charlotte Weisburg

Exhausted but happy, we embarked on the 20-hour trip back to Philadelphia where our parents were scheduled to greet our bus from Dulles Airport in a sun-baked Home Depot parking lot. During the ride, I remembered my parents' original reticence about the trip and how they had questioned whether this experience would be worthwhile. I knew that as soon as I saw them I would be able to tell them a resounding "yes!" True, I had not practiced my solo music for two weeks, but in exchanged for a little backsliding in that department, I had gained new insight into the camaraderie of orchestra playing. Our youth orchestra performs a fair amount of concerts each year, but our regular schedule of rehearsals and concerts are nothing like the intense experience of an 11-day, 7 concert traveling tour.

It was satisfying to reflect on the ways we had been able to communicate through the music we played. Throughout the trip we were isolated from our audiences verbally—none of us could speak Portuguese, and could only talk to them through miming. But concert after concert, we finished feeling that we now shared a special bond with these strangers. Our Brazilian audiences were the most responsive and enthusiastic audiences we had played during in our brief careers. Their warm response to us was a wonderful reward for our hours practice and travel. I came home feeling that I could more than justify the sacrifice of time and the expense of the trip because of this singular affirmation: music really is the universal language.

5 replies

An Interview with Time for Three

July 12, 2007 00:48


PHILADELPHIA--I first got to know the trio Time For Three in 2004 when I worked with them during the filming of the documentary Rittenhouse Square (2005). Violinists Nick Kendall,28, and Zach dePue, 27, and double bassist Ranaan Meyer, 29, have been together since their student days at the Curtis Institute, and in the past few years they've been making a huge splash in on the music scene, drawing classical music lovers to their high-spirited arrangements and drawing wider audiences to classical music. Not only are they fabulous musicians who work magically together in a group, they are also the heartthrobs of many teenage girl musicians throughout the country! Their music is often described as "bluegrass crossover", but it's much more than that. Their arrangements, improvisations, and original compositions include works from classical, traditional, and popular traditions.

We had scheduled an interview this afternoon at Ranaan's house in Philadelphia's beautiful Art Museum area, but a sudden summer thunderstorm had them stuck in traffic on I-95 and me stuck at home with a tree fallen across my driveway. So our interview took place as a four-way cell phone conference call!

Caeli: People always comment on the name "Time For Three". Whose idea was it?

Ranann: Zach came up with the name, at first as a joke: "It’s time for three!" It was a time when we were all working hard on our own careers—Nick and Zach doing solo repertoire and me studying to become an orchestral bass player. We were being lighthearted and funny.

Caeli: But the name also reveals your serious purpose.

Ranaan: When I was a student at Manhattan School of Music I had a jazz trio—piano, drums and bass—that we called "3.1". It was really on the cutting edge, musically. The idea was "three musicians coming together for one purpose". Nick, Zach, and I had the same thought about our own group.

Nick: Not long ago, when we were working on our website we talked to some professionals about the idea of branding—do you know what that is?

Caeli: Branding? Not really…

Nick: It's a marketing idea in which the customer sees a word or phrase and in a split second understands the essence of what a product is. You know, if you see the word "Coke" you instantly think of Coke! The people working on our website said, "Time For Three??? What does that mean? You should think of a different name! And we thought about it seriously. But then people screamed at us, "You can't change the name!" So we kept it.

Caeli: I recently interviewed Zach, so we already know all about his early life and musical upbringing. But what about Nick and Ranaan? How did you guys get started in the musical life? Did you come from musical families?

Nick: My mom isn't a musician, but my family on my father's side has plenty of professional players and teachers. My paternal grandfather, John Kendall, brought the Suzuki method from Japan to America in the early 60's. My sister, Yumi, who's 23, is the assistant principal cellist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. Our cousin, Daniel Foster, is the principal violist of the National Symphony Orchestra where his father, William Forster, another Suzuki pedagogue, has played in the viola section for year; my uncle, Christopher Kendall is the Dean of the School of Music at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Caeli: It's no surprise that you became a violinist.

Nick: Everyone in the family plays, either for fun and or as a main focus in their career. As for me, I started playing when I was three and began formal lessons at three-and-a-half. I grew up in DC (Silver Springs, Maryland, to be precise) and for years I studied with an amazing teacher, Ronda Cole, who is an internationally famous Suzuki pedagogue. I credit Ms. Cole for evoking a lot of the energy and creative spirit that I bring to my playing. When I was in 9th grade I was introduced to Mr. Danchenko, who would eventually become my teacher at Curtis. I commuted every Friday to Baltimore for lessons with him, and studied with him at ENCORE for six or seven summers.

Caeli: So, from the very beginning you knew you would become a professional?

Nick: Well, I've always loved playing, but I didn’t love working.

Caeli: (laughing) Who does?

Nick: My parents never pushed me to become professional. Maybe because, with so many pro musicians in the family, they understood how difficult the life can be. But my mom, being Asian, pushed me along enough so that music would enhance my life. Then, when I was fourteen I won the National Symphony Orchestra Competition and got to perform with the orchestra at the Kennedy Center, and I realized what could happen if I applied myself. So I started working harder!

Ranaan: As for me, I grew up in New Jersey—Sicklerville, and later Washington Township. I started on piano when I was four with my mom Norma Meyer, a who's a great pianist. I learned to play nursery rhymes and basic stuff, but I never practiced. I would improvise at the piano. I loved playing Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel tunes.

Caeli: When did you start playing the bass? I've never seen a little kid playing bass!

Ranaan: I took up cello for a few months when I was nine, but then I quit. I used to quit a lot of things back then—I quit piano four times, and I also quit a lot of sports! But my mom always insisted that I play one instrument, so when I was eleven I noticed that a cool kid at my school named Luke played bass. He got all the chicks, and I wanted all the chicks, so…

Caeli: But you didn't quit bass.

Ranaan: Oh, I wanted to quit bass, but my mom wouldn't let me. Then, when I was fifteen, I was introduced to jazz and I fell in love with music—I was infatuated. Then I learned that to be a good jazz player I needed to be a good classical player, so that's how I fell in love with classical music.

Long story short, I got into Manhattan School of Music after high school and spent two-and-a-half years there before I auditioned for Curtis, where I studied with Hal Robinson from 1999 to 2003, with the goal of becoming an orchestral bass player. While I was at MSM, I was always gigging and doing other genres, mostly jazz and rock, from the time I was fifteen. I used to think, gosh, it would be nice to have a classical gig or two. But until I was nineteen, I didn't get to play much classical music professionally. Then I met up with Nick and Zach and everything that I'd been doing for years—improvising, classical, arranging—I could do in this one group…and even more than that. I figured this was the correct path.

Caeli: Did any of you have formal training in improvisation?

Ranaan: Improv made me fall in love with music. I was lucky enough to study with masters of jazz like Rufus Reid, master of jazz bass. His discography is huge. In the summers during high school I studied with legendary bass player Todd Coolman at the Skidmore Jazz institute in Sarasota Springs, NY., and with Milt Hinton one of the most famous jazz bass players of all time. He worked with all of the greats—Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington.

Zach: I didn't have formal instruction in improv, but growing up I spent time in the fiddle/bluegrass world jamming with musicians and, of course, my brothers.

Nick: Because I began studying violin with the Suzuki method, I learned how to play first by ear, which has been a tremendous help with improvisation. As a teenager I taught myself to drum with a set of trash cans because my parents didn't want real drums in the house. I used to play the trash can drums on the street, making money with my friends. And I was with a hip hop band when I was younger. When I was in 8th grade my youth orchestra had a chance to go to Spain, which was my first experience seeing gypsies play. They really inspired me! They have no formal training, their instruments look like crap, and yet they produce this sound and energy that's amazing!

Caeli: When did you guys realize that Time For Three was a serious commitment?

Nick: Well, at the beginning it was really just for fun. Literally, Zach and I had been playing together with his brothers in the streets at music festivals. Later, Zach, Ranaan and I played a jam session in Reading, Pennsylvania, where the Curtis orchestra had traveled to play a concert. We three got together in an open space and just jammed. We never thought much about it; we just played together when everyone else was warming up. But then people started getting wind of what we were doing. Board members of Curtis would think, "It would be fun to have those boys come and play at our party." In the beginning, we never rehearsed; we played when we gigged. Then we got called once before school let out and offered an opportunity to play at the Corcoran in DC. $150 a man. Plus a limo ride to Washington, hotel, and all we want to eat! We thought, well gosh, that sounds like fun. So we did it. In fact, we thought up our name on the limo ride down there.

Caeli: So you were hooked?

Nick: We realized how easy it was to be ourselves when we played together. We could let our own personalities emerge. And the audiences went wild.

But even after a couple years, we didn't take Time For Three that seriously. The trio was just a way for us to make a little cash; we hadn't put too much thought into the idea of making it a "career thing", which is completely different from our attitude towards it now.

Caeli: I've always wondered: do you get criticized by traditional bluegrass players for being classical musicians acting as sort of dilettantes in their genre?

Zach: Not to our faces!

All: (Laughter)

Ranaan: We just got another great review from our concert at the Newport Music Festival last night. We feel like we're blessed!

Zach: One interview after the next, the journalists ask us what styles we play. But it's hard to answer since we're open to all styles and are affected by all styles.

Ranaan: If it's something that feels good, we try it; if it works, we share it with our audiences.

Nick: We played the Rockport Chamber Music Festival a few weeks ago, and at intermission one guy got up and in a huff and stormed outside. We didn't notice, but later we were told he was saying, "This is outlandish! It's not Mozart or Brahms!"

Ranaan: People told us about it later because they thought it was hilarious. The three of us don't worry about negative criticism; we just laugh about it.

Zach: Any time you break tradition, some people will be shaken by it. Change is hard.


Caeli: Speaking of music festivals, where are you playing in the near future?

Nick: Wabash, Indiana. The Grand Teton Festival. The Utah Sympony. The Chatauqua Festival, the Ocean City Pops.

Zach: We played 130 dates across the country this year.

Nick: In 31 states. So it's hard to keep track. But there's a list of upcoming dates on our website.

Zach: Next January we'll be premiering a new concerto by composer Jennifer Higdon with Philadelphia Orchestra.

Ranaan: And this summer we're spending a lot of time away from the road, writing and working together. We're thirsty for new creative outlets.

Caeli: Can you give us a little hint about what new material you're working on?

Ranaan: We just completed new arrangement of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah".

Nick: It's a song that's been covered by Jeff Buckley, kd lang.

Caeli: Rufus Wainwright sings it in Shrek!

Nick: That's the one!

Caeli: How do you manage rehearsing while you're on the road?

Nick: When we travel, we're in a different city every day, and we get there mostly by car. We can't do too much rehearsing, not much more than 45 minutes a day, because the schedule we keep is so rigorous. That's why this summer is dedicated to rekindling creative energy.

Caeli: Will it be difficult with Zach moving to Indiana?

Nick: Crafting a schedule is a carefully coordinated effort. Some rehearsal will be in Indiana, some in Philly, where Zach still keeps a home.

Ranaan: It will be very moveable. We'll be creative and we'll make it work.

Caeli: Speaking of making it work: you guys spend an awful lot of time together, and in close quarters—traveling in a car. You're in a car right now, in fact. Do you ever get on one another's nerves?

Nick (to Ranaan): Shut up dude!

Ranaan: Why are you being so dominant in this interview, Nick?!

Zach: Guys! Don't fight!

Nick: The three of us are so close, we're brothers. Being on the road isn't reality, really. It's an artificial world. It's hard to be around anybody that much. Sometimes we argue or disagree, and need to get away from each other. But at the end of the day we know that this is how a team works.

Zach: Knowing how to work together and grow together—that's the most important thing we do.

Me, at age 11, working with Time For Three on the documentary Rittenhouse Square.

My quartet, Seraphina, opened for Time For Three at a fundraiser this winter.

11 replies

A Conversation with Elena Urioste

July 6, 2007 10:32


[This column originally appeared in The Roving Report, Vol. 2.]

Violinist Elena Urioste is going places -- literally! Next week she's going to the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; last week it was the Boston Pops; and then the Atlanta Symphony in late July and the Detroit Symphony in August. And that's just for starters, thanks to her winning First Place in the Senior Division of this year's Sphinx Competition in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sphinx, which was founded in 1997, is a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting young black and Latino classical musicians.

As an eleventh grader, Elena, who is of Mexican and Basque descent, was First Prize Laureate in the Junior Division; shortly after, she entered Philadelphia's prestigious Curtis Institute of Music one year early. Now 21, Elena is poised at the beginning of a great career. I caught up with her for an interview after her orchestra rehearsal one beautiful spring evening in Philadelphia.

Caeli: Tell us a little about your involvement with the competition.

Elena: I was first introduced to Sphinx when I won the Junior Division back in 2003, and I've maintained close contact with them ever since. I had a lot of performance opportunities as a result, and I was invited to participate in two of their gala concerts.

The competition itself is such a positive, nurturing environment. You stay in a hotel in Ann Arbor with all the other kids, and at the opening dinner we all introduce ourselves. Everyone's so supportive, not like at some competitions when we're all looking out only for ourselves. The members of the Sphinx Symphony who mentor us are so warm and caring. It's a fabulous experience! One thing I can say, though -- they're very big on punctuality. You have to be at meals and gatherings on time.

Caeli: I've heard that Sphinx does a lot of cultural outreach.

Elena: Cultural leadership is a gigantic part of Sphinx and I can't express how much I love doing this. The best part is bringing classical music to people who wouldn't be exposed to it otherwise. We might do as many as five school outreach sessions in a day. It's fantastic! You might think the kids were going to be bored or restless, but I have had nothing but positive experiences at these sessions. They are my favorite memories from my Sphinx affiliations.

For example, in Baltimore -- I remember it so clearly -- we were visiting a dilapidated elementary school in a challenged neighborhood and I asked my usual, "How many kids here play an instrument?" A little girl about seven or eight years old raised her hand and said, "I used to play violin but I don't anymore." She was very attentive during the session, and at the end she came up and threw her arms around me. She said, "I'm going to ask my mom if I can play the violin again!"

Caeli: Wow!

Elena: I'm aware that, when I solo with a symphony, the regular concertgoers are already familiar with the Tchaikovsky concerto and they're just coming to check out the new kid -- me. I'm not changing anything in their lives at that moment. But if I can make a real difference in one child's life, that's more important than any big concert I might do.

Caeli: You're living every young musician's dream -- winning national competitions and soloing with major orchestras. And entering Curtis at a young age. Tell us about your experience there.

Elena: I'm from Philadelphia, so I grew up going to concerts at Curtis, hearing those amazing musicians and knowing deep down that's where I wanted to go. But being here has more than exceeded my expectations. It's the most loving, nurturing environment. It's like a family. Which can be irritating -- everyone knows everyone else's business! But I love going to a small school.

My primary teacher, Joseph Silverstein, has more than fulfilled my expectations. Musically, he's a god. He's totally my idol and it's surreal to hear him play, he's such a master. And amazingly, he's gotten to know me as a person, we have such a solid relationship. I never expected that. I've also learned so much from guest artists, from my orchestra and chamber experiences, and from the other students. I have to say, it's very humbling to be around so many talented students.

When I first arrived, I remember sitting down in the last chair of the second violins -- I had never actually played in symphonic orchestra before. Everyone else knew so much, intellectually and musically. I was terrified of the conductor. I knew I would have to work my butt off and soak up what everyone has to offer.

It's hard work -- but it's not all work. For example, today no one wanted to be inside practicing because the weather finally warmed up and it was so beautiful. So most of us spent the whole day in Rittenhouse Square lying on the grass in the sun and eating stuff! We know how to have fun.

Caeli: Tell me, do you still eat bananas to calm your nerves?

Elena: I'll tell you a secret. I've never liked bananas. So I've stopped doing that. Now before a big audition or concert I try and have a routine: practice in the morning, take a big nap, work out, shower, and get ready. I've learned that it's best to try not to stray too far from what I'd do on an ordinary day. I used to get all fixated on doing everything perfectly on the day of a big performance. You know, "the PERFECT shower"! Now I tell myself that, yes, the concert day is a special day, but if I convince myself it's just a regular day I don't psyche myself out as much. I don't go to bed at 9 PM the night before because I won't be able to sleep anyway. I've learned that the nerves will kick in all by themselves. I have considerable nerves, always have, and they're not going anywhere, so I've come to terms with that. I just deal with it.

Caeli: Sounds like you've been dealing pretty well, even without bananas.

Elena: Life is exciting now! I'm starting to be on the edge of big stuff.

4 replies

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