Musical chamber ensembles are by their nature intimate: Members are bound together by a love for and devotion to the performance of hand-selected repertoire, and often by relationships of blood or marriage. The musical personality of the group is shaped by the eccentricities and histories of each member.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the unconventional classical ensemble Quartetto Gelato whose members perform an idiosyncratic combination of eight instruments. Founding members Peter de Sotto (tenor and gypsy/classical violin) and Cynthia Steljes (oboe and English horn) have been joined by Alexander Sevastian (accordion and piano), Elinor Frey (cello) and most recently by Shalom Bard (clarinets) to create a lively musical conversation of disparate styles, genres and traditions.
But the musical conversation has taken a new turn. Steljes, 36, died Friday from malignant pleural mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer usually associated with asbestos exposure. Her funeral was held yesterday in Canada. Still, the group, including Steljes' husband, Peter de Sotto, will travel to Howard County for performances tomorrow and Sunday with the Candlelight Concert Society.
Candlelight Concerts Artistic Director Holly Thomas is astounded and moved at the group's decision to perform in the face of such tragedy. Music-making, always a soul-baring activity, will undoubtedly be part of Quartetto Gelato's tribute to and grieving for their absent partner.
Calling themselves "Classical in intent, eclectic by design," Quartetto Gelato's characteristic sound may be familiar to National Public Radio listeners: In 1996, the ensemble won the title of Performance Today's Debut Artist of the Year, and its first digital video disc, Quartetto Gelato: A Concert in Wine Country, was broadcast on PBS this past week. The quartet also was heard on the soundtrack to the films Only You and Looking for Angelina. With numerous recital tours and recordings to its credit, Quartetto Gelato has found success with its unorthodox approach to classical repertoire and openness to folk traditions, its members praised by Performance Today for playing "salon music with real style and classical music with real precision."
Quartetto Gelato's first performance, at 8 p.m. tomorrow in Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, is a charming and spirited romp called "Quartetto Gelato Travels the Orient Express." With stops in London, Paris, Munich, Vienna, Budapest and Bucharest, the musical journey takes in compositions by Brahms, Weber, Ravel, Kodaly and Kreisler as well as Lehar and popular songs by Piaf, Flanders/Swann and Gannon/Giraud.
All musical works have been arranged for the unique forces of Quartetto Gelato, offering a chance for those familiar with the standard classical repertoire on this program to hear it in a new way. Included are arrangements of the finale to Weber's Konzertstuck in f minor, op. 79, the concluding rondo to Brahms' Piano Quartet in g minor, op. 25, Kreisler's "Tambourin Chinois," and Ravel's complete Tombeau de Couperin.
Thomas issues an invitation to young people who may be dubious about how "fun, interesting and exciting" a classical concert can be, and to older audience members for an opportunity to hear how performances of standard repertoire can evolve. Indeed, such a program, when held to the high musical standards of the performers of Quartetto Gelato, is a breath of fresh air for traditional classical music audiences and an appealing way to become acquainted with the rich history of both art and folk music.
But as entertaining as tomorrow's program is bound to be, Sunday's performance for children and families, called "Love You Forever" (also held at the Smith Theatre at 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.), may be the one not to miss. Based on the best-selling children's book by Robert Munsch of the same title, the performance is a musical setting of the simple story of a mother's unshakable and lifelong love for her son.
"Love You Forever" will be narrated by Andy Barth, former newscaster for WMAR-TV and longtime Howard County resident. The program originally was designed to feature the musical skill and personal history of each member; on Sunday afternoon, it will no doubt be more poignant for performers and audience members alike.
As the mother in Munsch's story becomes old and sick, she is no longer able to take her son in her lap, so her son instead cradles her and takes up the familiar lullaby when she cannot. Love lives on, the story tells us, and there are more refrains to sing. Let Quartetto Gelato give voice to them, this weekend and in performances for the years to come.
Tickets are available by calling Candlelight Concerts at 443-367-3122 or e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.