Time for Three’s classical garage rock

Trio busts genres for Colorado Music Festival

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

What do you get when you combine classical music training with a garage-band mentality?

According to conductor Simon Rattle, it’s “the future of music.” But don’t take his word for it: you can decide for yourself when the group fitting that description, the string trio Time for Three, appears with the Colorado Music Festival’s symphony orchestra today and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m. in Boulder’s Chautauqua Auditorium.

An ensemble of two violins and double bass, Time for Three — Tf3 for short — seem to be breaking all the rules of classical music right out of the starting gate. As a completely non-standard instrumental combination, they do not have a repertoire of music to play. They mix together anything and everything, from country-western to classical to gypsy. Like rock bands, they write and arrange everything they play. Like jazz combos, they improvise. And like garage bands everywhere, they do it mostly for fun.

The members of Tf3 — violinists Zach DePue and Nick Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer — met as students at the Curtis Institute of Music. Like lots of young musicians, they started playing together outside of their lessons, mingling various styles well beyond the regimen of classical studies. And there it might have stayed, just three guys who got together to jam, were it not for a power failure at Philadelphia’s Mann Center for the Performing Arts in 2003.

When lightning knocked out the power, technicians were summoned to restore the stage lighting.

DePue and Meyer, who were playing with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the time, were invited to entertain the audience — who had arrived expecting to hear a Beethoven symphony — until the lights came back on. They obliged with a completely spontaneous jam session that included “Jerusalem’s Ridge,” “Ragtime Annie” and “Orange Blossom Special.” The crowd went wild, and Time for Three soon went on the road.

Fun it may be, but casual it is not, because these guys can definitely play. That classical training at the Curtis Institute paid off in the form of fierce technical abilities. Rattle added to his “future of music” comment by describing the group as “monsters of ability and technique. … Simply put, they’re a knockout.”

Audiences seem to agree. They have played at the Kennedy Center in Washington and at Joe’s Pub in New York; they have been soloists with the Philadelphia Orchestra and opened for k.d. lang. They have appeared on NPR broadcasts and recorded the soundtrack for a History Channel special.

“We’ve been thrown into so many diverse situations that we’ve become chameleons,” violinist Nick Kendall says. “I don’t think there is any situation that we haven’t been able to do. We even played for an economics class at the University of Michigan.”

Happily, there will not be an economics class at the Colorado Music Festival, where Tf3 will play a piece they commissioned. Chris Brubeck’s “Travels in Time for Three” for the trio with orchestra is very much tailored to their individual personalities. Of all the pieces they play with orchestra, this is the one, Kendall says, that “represents us as a group the best. It’s such an amazing platform for us to have a great time.”

The music came out of a three-day jam session with the composer.

“We spent three days hanging out in the living room,” Kendall says. “Some of it was just talking about concepts, and then we’d take up our instruments. A lot of the material in the piece are elements that we jammed on [during those three days].”

The piece that Brubeck, the son of renowned jazz musician Dave Brubeck, wrote puts elements familiar to the group — country fiddling, an Irish medley, classical fugues — into a jazz context. Most is written out, but with players having the freedom to improvise around the written material, like jazz musicians playing from a lead sheet, or Baroque soloists embellishing a concerto.

“When we are playing the piece, we learn the notes on the page, and then we forget about what’s on the page and just play it from the heart,” Kendall says.

What does Kendall want the audience to know before they hear “Travels in Time for Three?” “It allows everybody on stage to have a great time,” he says. “It’s more of a celebration piece, and what we’re doing is being virtuosos on our instruments, but in the context of a language that is part of American history: jazz. The harmonies are just so juicy and so yummy; it’s like candy to our ears. People react after each movement — they go crazy because it’s just fun.”

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

On the Bill

Time For Three plays the Chautauqua Auditorium on Thursday, July 8, and Friday, July 9. Show starts at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets start at $12. 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-449-1397.