Q&A: Time for Three Mixes Classic With New

BY Mike Melia  February 29, 2012 at 1:35 PM EDT

A classical music trio covering Kanye West doesn’t seem an obvious project, but that’s exactly what Time for Three has done in its latest music video for the song, “Stronger.” Made up of two violinists, Zach De Pue and Nicolas Kendall, and bassist, Ranaan Meyer, the group met while studying at the renowned Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. All three are skilled classical musicians, but the trio goes well beyond Bach or Beethoven, re-working orchestral standards on stage and blending bluegrass, jazz and pop.

Since forming in 2002, Time for Three has toured the country performing with several orchestras, including a three-year residency with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, where they created a “Happy Hour” series to draw in younger audiences. Next Tuesday, they make their Carnegie Hall debut, performing “Travels in Time for Three” by Chris Brubeck, co-commissioned by the Boston Pops.

Art Beat recently caught up with Kendall:

How do you decide on the mix in your music, reworking orchestral standards, bluegrass, jazz and pop?

One of the things we love are those moments onstage when we get to feel the energy of the audience. A lot of times, I think, just because of the attitude and improvisational aspect of our shows in the early years, we are attractive to audiences that normally do not come to classical music concerts. Because of that and because we also live in the 21st century and listen to all sorts of music besides classical, we wanted to experiment with how we could weave in all of these familiar experience that our audiences like and introduce them to an unexpected place, in a concert hall. Now we perform with a small band that accompanies us, and most of our concerts are now with orchestral accompaniment. I think by doing that, it is has been a very interesting 11 years, because we do not know all the answers, we are just experimenting, but in the process having a really good time doing it.

Tell us how you got together.

Zach, Ranaan and I met while we were students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, which is arguably one of the best classical music conservatories out there. We were definitely the black sheep amongst a very classically oriented student body. We were the only ones improvising, freestyling and having these jam sessions after orchestra rehearsal or solo practice with our private teachers. We stuck out in that way. Actually, now, it is interesting not only at Curtis, but in most conservatories, at least in America and Canada, there is a lot of improvisation being incorporated in the curriculum. So times have changed since Time for Three was there in the early 2000s.

It is important to find ways to attract younger audiences to classical music?

It is a mixture of wanting to please your audience but also a desire to mash the two worlds together in a very artistic way. A lot of the compositions we will do take familiar tunes or pop songs that are carefully picked, and we get very creative where we take it. Sometimes it is original content that we surround it with, or we actually take from the classical cannon and sort of embed these familiar tunes within it. Quite honestly, it is like Bach or Beethoven. They would take their street music, take their folk music, their pop music of their time and take it somewhere unexpected or beautiful. Not to say Time for Three is anything like those masters, but traditionally speaking we are doing the oldest trick in the book.

What can we expect at Carnegie Hall next week?

This is a great project, something we have been looking forward to, and it’s such an honor to be on that stage in our own guise. This is an experimental new group, and to be honored by Carnegie and to partner with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops is amazing. This is a piece that acknowledged our interest in jazz. There are many sub categories of jazz. There is straight ahead jazz, there is swing, Latin jazz, all these elements that Chris Brubeck collaborated with us on. Of course, he is the master of this genre, coming from his family heritage, but for us it was a way to explore in that genre.

Jazz is something we love, and our bass player, Ranaan, says all the time he fell in love with music through the language of jazz. It has been a lot of fun. The great thing about Chris is he checks his ego at the door and created three tailored suits for us, meaning there is so much of the creative process that involved us sharing our ideas. There was this one point where he came back with a whole bunch of these written notes on a page, and I said, “Geez, this is really difficult.” And he said, “Actually you are the one that played that, I just transcribed it.” So he has taken our ideas, our energy, our best performance attributes and surrounded those and helped guide some of those ideas with the incorporation of orchestral composition.

Your video for the cover of Kanye West’s “Stronger” tells the story of a young man, a musician, being bullied. It is a very timely subject these days. Why did you decide to do that? Why was that important for you?

It was timely, but it wasn’t our main goal to arrive at that concept. Originally in our growth, we knew we wanted to have a video. It is a wonderful way to experiment, your music accompanied with great visuals. We did not know at first what concept we wanted, but we wanted something that was meaningful. We were having a session at the beginning of last summer with our producer, and he showed up to rehearsal with a random, vintage Kung Fu shirt. Zach, our other violinist, it just hit him. He said, “Oh my gosh, that shirt reminds me of the story of the Karate Kid.” Where the kid was made fun of by his peers, but he finds solace in his teacher and builds up courage and strength by refining his tools and builds up his character.

All three of us, at one point in our life, we could relate to that. Violinists in a school situation aren’t the most popular kids, nor is the double-bass player. Studying classical music, we were all taunted in various ways, some more than others. Yet we always worked hard on our instruments and always persevered. It was inspired by that, and we also realized this kind of storyline could relate to more than instrumentalists. It could relate to anybody who struggles with trying to find their individuality, maybe feeling they are different than the norm. Our message is to them.

The three of us, we were always lucky to have an environment where creativity was encouraged. We had great individual teachers, music teachers and school teachers, who knew that was a good thing for us. And it is for us now to show, in a time when school budgets are cutting arts, to say that in the face of all this bullying we see going on, it is a shame to be cutting the arts, because we know by offering creativity and by inspiring the creative voice, good things happen.