'Bravo!' in Glenelg

The Baltimore Sun

Did you hear the story about the puzzled patron who asked the restaurant owner why diners were applauding the canned music playing over the sound system?

The songs sounded so good, the curious person didn't realize the selections were being performed live. She was further surprised to learn the musicians were all 17-year-old high school students.

So goes the anecdote told by Trevor Ifill, one of three owners of Bistro Blanc in Glenelg, where the Naricyn String Quartet serenades customers every Sunday.

The foursome comprises Kathryn Gaasch and Emily Gerry on violin and Kathryn Knaus on viola, all from River Hill High School, and Erica Fedor of Marriotts Ridge High on cello.

"It was a no-brainer to ask them to be our 'Musical Sunday' entertainers," said Ifill, who suggested hiring the act to his partners at their "casual/fine dining" restaurant and wine bar on Ten Oaks Road.

"Their sound is just so fitting to the type of restaurant we are and the atmosphere we want to convey," he said as the familiar strains of Jingle Bell Rock sounded behind him Sunday.

The girls have played together as a quartet for three years, a spinoff of a quintet whose original members created the name Naricyn by plucking syllables from their first names. Gerry is a junior and the others are seniors.

The group has been steadily cultivating wedding engagements, nursing home performances, elementary school concerts and the like. They performed at Salon Marielle in historic Ellicott City on Friday as part of Midnight Madness, the annual holiday celebration hosted by Main Street merchants.

But the girls landed their best gig last month after they played at the five-month-old restaurant during a family-night fundraiser sponsored by River Hill's Music Boosters in September and earned rave reviews from the owners.

"We were hoping they might bring us back once in a while, for Valentine's Day or some other special occasion," Fedor said. "It's an honor that they want us to be here every week."

The girls place their chairs in the same corner of the bistro each Sunday, between racks of wine and shelves of liqueurs. Wearing all black - to blend into the background, they said - the performers launch into playing with gusto, throwing their bodies into their bowing.

Providing three hours of music requires a sizable repertoire, one that Knaus' mother, June Kerger, works to enlarge. She orders most of the quartet's sheet music from Web sites, she said, choosing songs based on teacher recommendations or that she thinks the musicians could perform well. Selections span a broad range of artists, from the Beatles to Gershwin to classical composers.

The musicians change their program slightly each week, consulting among themselves between numbers to reach a consensus on what they're in the mood to play next.

"It was hard at first to get used to hearing silverware clanking and people talking," Fedor said. "Now we feel right at home."

Bob Temple of Columbia called out "Bravo! Bravo!" after an ambitious tango Sunday night, tucked a $5 bill into the group's tip jar and encouraged the musicians to keep doing what they're doing.

"I told them it's all about communication and practice," he said, adding that he performed in a string quartet in his high school in the 1960s in Arizona.

"Performing music takes more intellect and discipline than most people realize," said Temple, a psychiatrist.

Earlier, all four girls agreed that they have artistic differences on occasion, mainly about songs in which one member or another has a particularly boring part.

"I just compare music to sports - you can't always be out on the field," said Gaasch, a multisport athlete.

"Most of the time, we go with the flow, but we do have our squabbles," Knaus said.

"But they never affect our playing," Fedor quickly added.

The girls have an obvious knack for finishing each other's thoughts and are able to anticipate their musical whims, they all agreed.

"There have been times when we all crescendo together or when we all speed up at the same time for some unknown reason," Fedor said.

"We have a level of understanding that goes beyond words," Gerry said.

Rosemary Lather, orchestra director at River Hill and Marriotts Ridge high schools, applauded the girls' success.

"They are very talented and enterprising young women who have sought out these venues and done this all themselves," said Lather, who has taught in the county public school system for 24 years.

"I cannot take any credit for the quartet - they rehearse and perform totally on their own, which is a testament to their maturity and talent," she said.

But there have been times over the years that maintaining a professional demeanor while playing has been a challenge, Knaus said.

"At our very first wedding, the ring bearer tripped when he crossed the threshold [into the church] and we nearly stopped playing," she recalled.

Another time, the comical sight of a pet Chihuahua pulling a cart in a wedding procession threatened to break their concentration, Gaasch recalled with a laugh.

"And there was the time Emily's music stand fell over into her lap," said Fedor, who added that Gerry's talent enabled her to keep playing from memory.

Gerry, who plays the melody in most songs, began her musical training at age 4, when she studied the Suzuki method, a Japanese early-childhood educational philosophy involving memorization. This early start makes her the group's most accomplished member, agreed the other three, who started playing in their third-grade orchestras.

"But we are on the same plane mentally when it comes to music," Fedor said. "We are all connected."

"And we really like it when people come up to us," said Gaasch. "It means a lot."

As if on cue, Mike Ellis of Glenelg approached the musicians between numbers to thank them "for making an enjoyable evening even nicer."

"It's all about providing a pleasant dining experience," Fedor said.

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