Quatrocelli: Four Cellos on a Snowy Night

IT WAS A MISERABLE NIGHT out. Big, wet snowflakes falling.Roads, a mess. And all this following a week of temperatures in the 50s.

The Fairfield Concert Association was presenting its March program, a group billed as four young handsome cellists from Germany called Quattrocelli. Always a big fan of the cello, my curiosity was piquing around the cornerfrom the moment I heard about this event. (I play in a group called Sage that features Daniel Sperry on cello.) The event would be held at the Fairfield High School Auditorium, a setting I enjoy very much.

Slogging through the snow, I arrive without my so-called date (another story—suffice it to say she had a cold), receive a program, and take an aisle seat in the second row center. The hall is less than robustly filled. I’d say only a couple of hundred or so in the 700-seat capacity venue complete with balcony. There are four piano stools on the stage.

After a simple introduction, out come four handsome well-coiffed young men. They are dressed in white bow ties and black tuxedos with tails, which they flick over their stools. They sit, smile at the crowd, and launch into a gentle Bach piece. Ah, the sound of cello, so mellifluous. (“Mellifluous”—adj.,a word with Indo-European roots that means flowing with sweetness or honey). Multiplied times four tonight. Sheets of unctuous cascading vibrations wash over me in a lush aural rainscape of pure tones and rich harmonies. The sound is cleansing, purifying, elevating. I’m already feeling sorry for the empty seats in the house.

In the program I read: “A quartet of four voices of the same register definitely requires the right chemistry among the players. These four come from the same school in Aachen, Germany, where they studied with the same teacher, Professor Hans-Christian Schwieker. This assures a uniformity of technique and tone, and a level of performance that appears effortless.”

Effortless indeed, with cello interpretations born to segue shows for NPR. The well-rounded program moves seamlessly from classical to pop tocabaret to folk material and back. A Strauss piece reminds me of a pizzicato plink-plunk polka. (Pardon my lack of descriptive aplomb in this area.Or is that aria?) When the quartet jumps into a pumping version of “Mission Impossible,” I can’t help recalling a certain flight deck.The players on stage are all having fun, hamming it up just a bit. They obviously know how to play and to perform, looking often at one another,intently listening.

When Hartwig Christ (“the shortest”) introduces the band,he explains how separate airplane tickets must be purchased for their cellos as the instruments are too big for carry-ons and too precious to go as cargo. (His cello, inherited from his mother, is Dutch, built in1663. Lukas Dreyer [“the oldest”] has a much younger German cello from 1760.) Though Lukas appears to be the leader, they all take turns introducing segments of music, which is elegant and egalitarian.Matthias Truck (“the tallest”), who does the arranging with Lukas, has a Swedish tennis player’s physique with an easy smile and a friendly air. Michiel (“the youngest”) is the newest member, with the most youthful cello.

Funny and bright, they are at ease speaking, even with slightly halting German accents. In true democratic fashion, all four members take turns soloing. They feature a number of pieces by renowned German jazz musician Helmuth Brandt, a saxophonist and big band composer who wrote for thedouble bass. Touching melody lines match eclectic frames of reference.

The second half of the show starts with Manuel de Falla’s “Danzadel Fuego” with its bumblebee buzzing intro driving into an evocative Spanish fire dance feel. This is followed by a Gershwin medley that literally kicks ass. (I would find out later from Lukas, it came from a trombone quartet arrangement.)

Two more pieces by Brandt are followed by music from Elmer Bernstein’s the “Magnificent Seven,” which conjures images of the Marlboro Man and class action lawsuits. (“Come to where the flavor is. .. .”) At one point, the cellos drop out and the whole group whistlesthe melody, the juxtaposition tickling the room. They finish off the eveningwith an unlikely surf guitar instrumental from the movie Pulp Fiction. “Miserlou,” written by Dick Dale.

The song starts off low-key and perky with a Spanish flavor. Then twominutes in, the cellos lurch into a yowling Arabesque wail that sounds like surging gas-powered buzz-saws. The audience claps along on the double backbeat. Dig it: a group of hoity-toity classical musicians ripping through a surf number.

After a standing O, they offer a French impressionistic version of “The Pink Panther.” And then, milking the cow for all it’s worth,like some celestial elevator music to the heavens, they do Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” their way, a perfect coda for the show.

Afterwards, Lukas, who has a distinctly John Lennon visage, invites me to hang with his mates. We talk at length of all manner of things, especially classical music. Lukas is first chair in an 80-piece orchestra and cut his professional teeth playing in string quartets. Says Brahms is his favorite classical composer. Loves Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the man who did most of Fellini’s movie music, Nino Rota.

He waxes poetic about the mystical mathematics of the musical spheres that composers like Brahms (and some of Bach), among others, were ableto incorporate into their compositions, comparing them to certain classical architecture done in proportions that matched those intervals of the music.This style of composing, done with a mathematical precision where otherthings emerge from the more surface melodic and harmonic structures, isnot a part of the modern milieu.

After playing 25 dates with Quattrocelli, Lukas rushes back to Germany in time for three practices and then the opening of an incredibly difficult opera, one with recently restored killer cello parts that require Lukas to sync with vocalists even though he’s down in a pit with his back to the performers. Plus, he has over 600 CDs of film music to sort through looking for the quartet’s next recording.

His partner in crime, Matthias Truck, plays me one of his side projects,a cello duo called Ponticellos. Three of the pieces incorporate percussion and are smack-daddy honking. Matthias talks about the fun he had organizinga string section for a large-arena tour with a German hip-hop band, enjoying the wider exposure but never quite finding satisfaction with the soundof the amplified cello. He hopes to correct that with an electric cello he found in Rome made by a company called Alter Ego; it’s being fitted just so and tweaked to his personal tastes.

I have a blast hanging out with these guys. My favorite moment is when Lukas tells me why he enjoys playing with Quattrocelli. “I know really good musicians that don’t listen to each other. It’s all about listening, even if you’re playing the same thing everyday. You feel where the other people are at in the moment and respond to that.”

They crash at the Super 8, grabbing some shuteye before heading up to Wisconsin the next morning. I drive home through whisking gobs of snow, the road blurring into unseen horizons, windshield wipers, like drunken cello bows, keeping time.