May 29, 2012 at 4:39 AMTime for Three is one of my favorite things happening on planet Earth these days, and Sunday night I finally saw this trio perform live for an audience of about 1,000 at the Suzuki Association of the Americas Conference in Minneapolis.
Their performance -- which I'd sum up with the words "smokin' hot!"-- was a source of both inspiration and affirmation for the appreciative group of teachers assembled from all over the world.
The trio represents all that Suzuki teachers wish for their students: that they grow up to show a generosity of spirit and joy in music-making, and that they emerge fully at ease with both their playing and their own musical message.
Both violinists in the group started as Suzuki students. The trio consists of bassist Ranaan Meyer and violinists Zachary de Pue and Nick Kendall. Nick is the grandson of John Kendall, a major pioneer of the Suzuki movement, who died last year. Nick's childhood Suzuki teacher, Ronda Cole, sat in the audience.
"Nick comes from this Suzuki world," Ranaan told the audience. "He has brought that into our group and we love that."
People ask what kind of music they play, but it's pretty hard to pin it down. "We don't know what we call ourselves, but we hope it's fun and meaningful," Nick told the audience.
The three started jamming together while studying at the Curtis Institute ("great football program there," Nick said), and they create their arrangements by improvising on music they like: the Bach double, pop songs, fiddle and jazz standards -- you name it.
The show began with tunes called "Of Time and Three Rivers" and "Thunder Struck" (no doubt they played this in sympathy with the raging thunderstorms outside!) and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Their style takes advantage of their virtuosity and easy command of their instruments, full of effects like pizzicato, strumming, chopping, bariolage, glissandi, super-smooth legato, and the general ability to play outrageously fast and impeccably together.
I was pleased they played one of my favorites, their arrangement of Hide and Seek, a harmonically interesting slow song by the British pop singer Imogen Heap. The original tune sounds almost unbearably electronic -- an intentional effect. I like the original, but I love their version: the way they shape it, relieve the electronic edge and just make something different and beautiful.
About 1,000 smiles erupted on 1,000 faces when they launched into their jazzy version of the Bach Double. As if Nick and Zach's 150 mph tempo and off-kilter rhythmic jags weren't enough, bassist Ranaan stole the show, standing between them, registering every bounce of this musical tennis ball on his face, plucking out a jammin,' jivin' walking bass and swiveling his hips.
They said that one time they were caught practicing that version of the Bach Double by Curtis professor Seymour Lipkin, who asked, "What was that?" When they told him it was the Bach Double, he said, "Too fast!"
Speaking of Bach, the group also shared one of its more recent (and unrecorded, as far as I know) arrangements: their take on the Chaconne from the Bach D minor Partita, which they call, "Chaconne in Winter."
As they tuned, Nick took a little longer with an uncooperative D sting. He may have been struck with a moment of self-consciousness, tuning his fiddle in front of 1,000 string teachers. "Still not right," he quipped. "Teacher!" He thrust his violin and bow toward the audience, as students do for tuning. We were still laughing when he crossed his right arm over the left, as if to hand violin and bow into the correct hands of the teacher.
Then up walked Ronda Cole, and the audience roared. Nick's Suzuki teacher!
Back to Bach, the group dedicated their performance of their version of the Chaconne to the memory of both Shinichi Suzuki and John Kendall. The idea for a Chaconne jam came one day when Zach was warming up on the Chaconne, and then Ranaan started groovin' to the Bach on his bass. They flipped on a recorder and spent the next 45 minutes or so improvising on the Chaconne, then they used that material, and added some bits from Bon Iver’s "Calgary," to create their arrangement.
Played in its original form, for solo violin, the Chaconne begins with a triple-stop D minor chord, followed by a lot of triple and quadruple stops, which can sound pretty aggressive and fraught. I enjoyed the gentle beginning that this trio was able to create, without having to break a chord over three or four strings. It allowed the piece to unfold: Zach wound the motor with running notes and bariolage, and as it grew faster the music felt risky and dangerous - kind of a rush! The piece famously switches from a minor to major key, in a passage that players tend to describe in almost religious terms. Here, that change to the major started with bass pizzicato, then the piece builds volume again. In fact, I thought I heard Vivaldi's "Winter" in there, though I can't be sure. Overall, their performance was incredibly athletic for its power, speed and control. The end of the Chaconne returned to that tranquil beginning. I found it rather enlightening to look at the Chaconne this way.
After intermission, our heros showed a video they made called 'Stronger,' which has been circulating on the Internet for several months. The topic of the video is bullying, and then ultimately, empowerment. In the video, bullies use a young man's violin like a baseball bat, smashing it to pieces. But the geeky violin kid emerges victorious -- and respected -- after a successful performance in the school talent show.
"All three of us have experienced these kinds of things. It's amazing to me that carrying around this double bass is not a cool thing," Ranaan said, laughing. "I look at it and think: cool!" He also mentioned that he calls his bass Xena -- "She's not only gorgeous, but she's so strong!"
A highlight of the concert for me was when Nick was having trouble tuning his instrument, turned to the audience, crossed his arms and proclaimed, "teacher?". At which time Ronda stood right up and went over to him.
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