Quatrocelli, Apr 04 | Four Cellos on a Snowy Night

BY JAMES MOORE

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, agroup 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 Sagethat features Daniel Sperry on cello.) The event would be held at theFairfield High School Auditorium, a setting I enjoy very much.

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

After a simple introduction, out come four handsome well-coiffed youngmen. They are dressed in white bowties and black tuxedos with tails, whichthey flick over their stools. They sit, smile at the crowd, and launchinto 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 vibrationswash over me in a lush aural rainscape of pure tones and rich harmonies.The sound is cleansing, purifying, elevating. I’m already feelingsorry for the empty seats in the house.

In the program I read: "A quartet of four voices of the same registerdefinitely requires the right chemistry among the players. These fourcome from the same school in Aachen, Germany, where they studied withthe same teacher, Professor Hans-Christian Schwieker. This assures a uniformityof technique and tone, and a level of performance that appears effortless."

Effortless indeed, with cello interpretations born to segue shows forNPR. The well-rounded program moves seamlessly from classical to pop tocabaret to folk material and back. A Strauss piece reminds me of a pizzicatoplink-plunk polka. (Pardon my lack of descriptive aplomb in this area.Or is that aria?) When the quartet jumps into a pumping version of “MissionImpossible,” I can’t help recalling a certain flight deck.The players on stage are all having fun, hamming it up just a bit. Theyobviously 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 theircellos as the instruments are too big for carry-ons and too precious togo as cargo. (His cello, inherited from his mother, is Dutch, built in1663. Lukas Dreyer [“the oldest”] has a much younger Germancello from 1760.) Though Lukas appears to be the leader, they all taketurns introducing segments of music, which is elegant and egalitarian.Matthias Truck (“the tallest”), who does the arranging withLukas, has a Swedish tennis player’s physique with an easy smileand a friendly air. Michiel (“the youngest”) is the newestmember, with the most youthful cello.

Funny and bright, they are at ease speaking, even with slightly haltingGerman accents. In true democratic fashion, all four members take turnssoloing. They feature a number of pieces by renowned German jazz musicianHelmuth 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 evocativeSpanish fire dance feel. This is followed by a Gershwin medley that literallykicks ass. (I would find out later from Lukas, it came from a trombonequartet arrangement.)

Two more pieces by Brandt are followed by music from Elmer Bernstein’sthe “Magnificent Seven,” which conjures images of the MarlboroMan 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,” writtenby Dick Dale. (You may recall I did a column on Dale last June.)

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

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

Afterwards, Lukas, who has a distinctly John Lennon visage, invitesme 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 orchestraand cut his professional teeth playing in string quartets. Says Brahmsis his favorite classical composer. Loves Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovichand the man who did most of Fellini’s movie music, Nino Rota.

He waxes poetic about the mystical mathematics of the musical spheresthat composers like Brahms (and some of Bach), among others, were ableto incorporate into their compositions, comparing them to certain classicalarchitecture 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 Germanyin time for three practices and then the opening of an incredibly difficultopera, one with recently restored killer cello parts that require Lukasto sync with vocalists even though he’s down in a pit with his backto the performers. Plus, he has over 600 CDs of film music to sort throughlooking 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 percussionand 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, enjoyingthe wider exposure but never quite finding satisfaction with the soundof the amplified cello. He hopes to correct that with an electric cellohe found in Rome made by a company called Alter Ego; it’s beingfitted just so and tweaked to his personal tastes.

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

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