Quartet spreads the love when it matters most, at Valentine's Day

Professor Donald S. Sutherland was on his way to meet a big potential donor, or so he thought, so the esteemed Peabody Conservatory faculty member figured he'd better not be late.

Hurrying into the school's cafeteria, he scanned the place for his guest and, failing to spot him, decided to grab a tray and get in line.


Then the assault began.

Four red-clad minstrels stepped from the shadows, two of them strumming guitars. "This Valentone is for you," one declared in his dreamiest crooner's voice.

Then the Valentonez, a band that carries out its mission — "Serenading Baltimore, One Valentine at a Time" — just four days a year, launched into a loopy but pitch-perfect rendition of "Happy Valentine's Day," a love ditty by the hip-hop duo Outkast.

"They attacked me — but in a nice way," said Sutherland, whose wife, fellow music professor Phyllis Bryn-Julson, had set him up with the "big donor" ruse.

Sutherland, the coordinator of organ studies at Peabody, was merely the latest victim of the Valentonez, an acoustic quartet that came together in 2011 with the goal of celebrating this day on the calendar (and the three days preceding it) as giddily and with as much musical variety as possible.

"People just weren't spreading the love the way we'd have liked," said member Britt Olsen-Ecker, a cheerful graduate of Peabody's voice program who trades lead vocals with Melissa Wimbish, a redhead who's about to finish her own graduate vocals program at the school. "What better time to spread the love than on Valentine's Day? We have as much fun doing that as we can."

The idea came about, Olson-Ecker said, when she, Wimbish and two local musician friends — guitarists Paul Diem and Aldo Pantoja — decided the pleasures of Valentine's Day could be a bit too fleeting.

They worked up a repertoire of 14 songs ranging from the highbrow to the goofball: the Beatles' "This Boy," George and Ira Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me," Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," a cockamamie medley of "Llamame" ("Call Me") by Ginamaria Hidalgo and Britney Spears' "Hit Me Baby One More Time."

The group offers four packages, from "First Base" ($55 for one song off the list) to the priciest, "Home Run" ($125 for two standards, two special requests and two gifts).

"The effect is pretty cheesy, but we try to make it the best cheese possible. The arrangements are funky and the choreography is totally silly and ridiculous. But it's fun," Olsen-Ecker said.

The formula works. Last year, the group averaged a half-dozen appearances per day over the first three days, traveling from cafes in the Inner Harbor to offices in Baltimore County to spring their shameless love traps.

Some of their victims beamed. A few sang along. More than a few turned red or hid their faces.

"We embarrass the heck out of people. Everyone in the vicinity gets to hear us. The more our clients blush, the more we like it," Olsen-Ecker said.

As Valentine's Day neared, word of mouth spread, and the Valentonez nearly doubled their daily gigs. Fans from as far away as Argentina got in touch through their Facebook page. The band began marketing videograms, as well.


"Valentonez Nation just keeps growing," deadpanned Pantoja, who works with Single Carrot Theater in Baltimore in his other life.

As they awaited Sutherland's arrival Tuesday, the musicians, all in their 20s, crouched in a side stairwell, the guitarists tuning their instruments, the ladies their voices.

As passers-by craned their necks for a look, Wimbish paced a bit.

"I always get nervous before we go on," she said.

The unsuspecting Sutherland, a Peabody educator for the past 37 years, walked right past them into the cafeteria, and when he grabbed his tray, they followed him in and struck.

After their Outkast performance, they trailed the professor to the table where Bryn-Julson sat and lit into their second number, Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe."

"Don't let them say your hair's too long, 'cause I don't care, with you I can't go wrong," the ladies sang, holding each other's hands as their bandmates "doo-wopped" in the background.

The couple, married 44 years, beamed, their arms around each other, and sang along. At the final notes, the cafeteria burst into applause.

Everyone hugged.

The Valentonez gathered their gear and got ready to head to their next stop, a place in Ridgely's Delight. After that, there would be a half-dozen more, then another spate on Valentine's Day.

But the effects of their performance lingered.

"I got my money's worth. Their phrasing was spectacular," said Bryn-Julson, an internationally renowned voice teacher.

Then she looked away, and her husband declared himself inspired.

"This reminds me to go buy a card," he said.