Ice Cream Social
Canadian quartet serves an eclectic blend of music, delivered with a smile.
Thursday, January 24, 2002
Photo:Quartetto Gelato makes its first appearance in Monterey on Friday, courtesy of Chamber Music Monterey Bay.
Imagine you''re planning a 15-day, 7-million-mile road trip. What CD do you take? If you''re Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk circling the globe on the Columbia Space Shuttle, you bring something by Quartetto Gelato, a band of inventive musicians from Toronto whose joyous performances and recordings of tangos, gypsy tunes, operatic arias and Neapolitan folk songs have been delighting audiences for nearly a decade, not just around the globe but above it. On Friday, they appear at the Monterey Conference Center, showcasing, as one dazzled critic put it, "the precision expected of a string quartet in Beethoven and the abandonment of gypsies improvising around a campfire."
Quartetto Gelato, whose performance here is part of the Chamber Music Monterey Bay series, got its start when four classical musicians in Toronto decided to have some fun exploring musical alter egos. In a phone interview from his home in Toronto, group co-founder Peter De Sotto remembers when he was a violinist with the Toronto Symphony. "I was a frustrated singer," he says. But giving up the security of his orchestral position for the uncertainty of an operatic career seemed risky at best. The group got their start by playing at a B&B in Toronto that catered to "the horse crowd," and news of their marvelous music-making quickly spread. "We became a cult band!" De Sotto says. Soon he was on leave of absence from the Symphony. Within a year they were booking gigs right and left, critics were calling them "the hottest classical band in Canada," and De Sotto never looked back.
What is it that makes the Quartetto Gelato unique? The tongue-in-cheek name of the group says it all. "Quartetto evokes the tradition of great, serious quartets, like the Quartetto Italiano," De Sotto says, "While Gelato is something for everyone, multiflavored and tasty. We take the music seriously, not ourselves." It is, after all, called playing music, and by celebrating that sense of play in repertoires from all around the world, the "Ice Cream Quartet" has hit upon a recipe that has brought them considerable success. A typical year now finds them playing 80 to 100 concerts, all around the world.
De Sotto is especially enthusiastic about all the touring the group does. "I was made to be on the road!" he exclaims. This taste for the international life may have begun when he was a boy taking violin lessons every other week in Toronto. After each lesson, his father would take him to a restaurant featuring a different national cuisine. In this way he became acquainted not just with the food of different cultures but often with their music and language as well.
Now Quartetto Gelato performs regularly throughout North America and Asia, with occasional trips to places as exotically far-flung as Brunei, Borneo, a city De Sotto remembers as being literally covered in gold, from the rooftops right down to the gold-plated bathroom fixtures in their hotel. Still, with all these international flavors, it''s clear the group''s musical heart lies in Italy. Their latest CD, Cafe Neapolitan, features an assortment of tunes that instantly transport one to a favorite ristorante in Italy, or perhaps in North Beach. De Sotto agrees that a lot of their music is Mediterranean-based. He describes the group as having two members of Italian background, one who is married to a half-Italian, and another who always wanted to be Italian.
Given the strong Italian heritage of Monterey, it seems fitting that the group''s first concert in this area should be at the Conference Center, close to the waters where Italian fishermen and their families have worked for generations.
Friday''s concert will highlight the diverse talents of each musician. Oboist Cynthia Steljes (who is married to De Sotto) will tackle a showpiece by Antonio Pasculli, known as the "Paganini of the oboe." Pioneering accordionist Joseph Macerollo, the group''s newest member, will play one of the 30 accordions he has in his collection. The quartet will also play a new arrangement of Maurice Ravel''s "Tombeau de Couperin" featuring, on both cello and guitar, George Meanwell. (De Sotto adds that Meanwell also plays "principal wit.") Note that performances by the Quartetto Gelato take place without written programs, which allows them to speak directly (read: crack jokes) with the audience.
Their next CD will celebrate gypsy music, both folk and classical-based-an appropriate choice for this on-the-road band which has found the perfect balance between light and serious, humorous and emotional. Gypsy dances, tangos, and songs like "O Sole Mio" have a way of making us feel like we''re hundreds of miles away, at a place we remember fondly, or a place we''ve always dreamed of visiting. Maybe even a place somewhere hundreds of miles up in space.