Fab Four :: Well Strung performs at Feinstein's at the Nikko

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Friday December 27, 2013
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They started on the streets of Provincetown, in a way. Now Well Strung, the acclaimed string quartet, is touring the country with their signature classical pop crossover instrumental and sung arrangements.

Yes, they also sing. We spoke in a conference call with first violinist Edmund Bagnell, second violinist Christopher Marchant, cellist Daniel Shevlin and violist Trevor Wadleigh from their various homes in New York City. The quartet will perform at Feinstein's at the Nikko December 27 and 28.

Known primarily for the unusual string arrangements of pop songs that lend themselves to covers, like Britney Spears' "Toxic," as well as hits by Adele and Lady Gaga, the ensemble is formally more than a year old.

"Our first show was in may of 2012, in New York at Joe's Pub," said Christopher Marchant of the sold out gig.

Before the group formed, Marchant was spotted playing his violin shirtless on a street in Provincetown.

"Mark Cortale [the show's co-writer and producer] had approached me about doing a solo in a show, but it wasn't really appealing to me at the time, so I brought up the idea of forming a quartet," said Marchant. "I knew a couple people at first and then sent out messages to friends that we were looking for a cellist who could sing, which was Daniel. I asked him if he was interested, since he was living in Denver at the time."

Shelvin said yes, with Wadleigh and Bagnell joining soon afterward after New York auditions.

What they didn't expect or deliberately decide was that all four performers are openly gay.

"It was more happenstance that we all are gay," said Shevlin. "I think when we were creating the first show we had, with a Provincetown audience in mind, that the repertory was probably a little more gay. I wouldn't call it campy, but something that a gay audience would react to."

Shevlin added, "As we've progressed, we've focused on making music the main part of our show. While it's wonderful to be embraced for being gay, the show is not for gays only. We've definitely evolved in the past year."

The repertory of pop songs amuses audiences who might be leery of classical music.

"That was part of the concept from the beginning, to juxtapose classical with pop, and make some connection between the two worlds," said Marchant.

The juxtoposition of genres is apt, as Shevlin explained. "While the classical composers were popular music at the time, that's why we choose pop music from our times. A lot of people have asked us about doing covers of other genres. But we've stuck to the pop versus classical format, and that works well together."

First violinist Bagnell added, "I think there is something about Mozart being the pop star of the day. Our audiences may think classical music is scary. But then, they get this mix-up of stuff and find that they love, say, Dvorjak. We're highlighting that this music is acceptable for a general audience. Just because it's a hundred years old, it still is really quite accessible."

Asked about their arrangements, violist Wadleigh said that there are arrangements available for most pop songs online. But for their four-part string performances, they work with colleague David Levinson.

"Daniel and Chris have both done work that we perform in the show as well," said Wadleigh. "It's nice having someone in the group and people we know to change the part to our voices, and make it work for our needs."

Shevlin noted how unusual a four-part vocal and string arragement of any song is. "We sing in most of the songs, although at first, we would play more. But now, because that's the thing that's working, we're singing more. That is something that's less common."

While they have demurred on requests, they are considering original music to add to their repertory.

Said Marchant, "Once we figure out where our strengths really lie, we will branch out."

Branching out into hunk territory is a place the quartet seems comfortable, Marchant in particular. Along with posing nude with a strategically-placed violin, he's performed in a Provincetown production of "Naked Boys Singing." Marchant also sang, acted and played violin in the touring productions of "Spring Awakening" and the acclaimed recent revival of "Sweeney Todd."

Each of the performers' musical background vary, with some theatre adding to their diverse talents. Raised in Ohio, Marchant said there were a lot of opportunities for him.

"I grew up playing violin and choir and theatre in college," he said. "Instead of being really strong in one area, I'm sort of a jack of all trades, and it worked out really well."

Wadleigh, raised in the suburbs of Seattle, started violin in fifth grade. "By high school, I got really into it, but not any theatre," he said. "Now that I've moved to New York City, it's the perfect atmosphere to delve further that way."

Also a member of the String Collective of New York, Wadleigh has performed at Carnegie Hall, taught viola at the University of Puget Sound Community Music Community and is also a co-founder of the Puget Sound Animal Rescue.

Shevlin's production credits as an actor and cellist include Edward Albee's "The Sandbox" and tours of "Rent" and "Cabaret."

Into 2014, the quartet will be criss-crossing the country for various upcoming concerts.

"Our spring is rapidly filling up," said Bagnell. "We're going to be in Atlanta, Puerto Villarta, and the Chicago area. We're also hoping to do more recording." The group's music can be purchased on their website.

Bagnell, whose show credits range from Charlie Brown musicals to performing with drag singer Varla Jean Merman, said, "We all live in New York, but we've been on the road constantly. New York has become a kind of a place to stop between dates out of town the past few months. It's been fun."

So, what are the audiences like? Do they vary from a more urban crowd to the Midwest?

"We do get repeat fans viewers, and whether they've seen us in P-town or New York, they're very much into the shows," said Shevlin. "We're never quite sure what we're going to get in smaller towns, which sometimes are more excited."

One such 'rural' show was the quartet's performance in Yountville, California as the opening act of an early December performance of the drag musical parody Christmas With the Crawfords.

Marchant said, "It's very interesting to watch the different responses, like it's a string quartet, so they have to be quiet. We love it when people recognize a song and giggle. The more vibrant they are, the better it'll make the show."

So feel free to clap, laugh and tap along as Well Strung performs.

Well Strung, the all-male string quartet, plays and sings classical and string arrangements of pop songs at Feinstein's at the Nikko. $25-$40. December 27 and 28 at 7pm. Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St. (866) 663-1063. www.well-strung.com www.feinsteinssf.com www.ticketweb.com