Pops Night: New Musical Frontiers

Sunday, August 16, 2020 , 6:30 PM

One of the most exciting musical developments in recent years has been the increasing popularity of ensembles who use their classical training to seek out new musical frontiers or, to misquote the commander of the Starship Enterprise, to boldly go where no musicians have gone before.


The 442s



Among the current crop, The 442s are one of the most intrepid. The group, which has been playing together for eight years, comprises violinist Shawn Weil, violist Michael Casimir, and cellist Bjorn Ranheim (all three St. Louis Symphony Orchestra members) and two of that city’s finest jazz musicians: songwriter, and composer Adam Maness and bass player Bob DeBoo. They take their name from the orchestral standard tuning of 442 Hz, accurately describe themselves as “a genre-defying acoustic quintet,” and take their artistic lead from the versatile Mr. Maness who plays piano, guitar, accordion, melodica, and glockenspiel (though not all at the same time!).

Naturally inquisitive, they have a unique sound that travels through time and place incorporating classical, jazz, and blues elements with occasional sidesteps into country, soul, and even pop. There is much camaraderie and experimentation within the quintet, and their cross-genre origins have paid dividends. Mr. Weil, Mr. Casimir, and Mr. Ranheim have learned to go beyond their classical roots to enjoy the greater freedom that comes from the more improvisational jazz world, while Mr. Maness and Mr. DeBoo have conversely responded to the way classical music demands, if not a greater, then at least a different kind of attention to detail.

Outside of the band, Mr. Maness, whose imaginative compositions form the basis for their programs, lives in St. Louis with his wife and kids. A natural collaborator, he has gigged around the world with a plethora of award-winning artists across a range of musical genres. Mr. DeBoo, meanwhile, is one of the most active jazz bassists in the Midwest. Beyond performing with luminaries such as Houston Person, David Sanborn, and more, he is a dedicated educator who is committed to mentoring young musicians.

Chicago-born Mr. Weil is an Indiana University graduate and alumnus of Michael Tilson Thomas’ admired New World Symphony. In addition to his orchestral work in St. Louis, he has performed throughout the world and joins the Sun Valley Music Festival orchestra each summer. Mr. Casimir studied at Juilliard and the Curtis Institute of Music and has appeared with orchestras worldwide before joining his comrades in St. Louis. Along the way, his musicianship has appeared on Disney’s 2019 The Lion King and in his mobile game soundtrack composition. An orchestra member in St. Louis since 2005, Mr. Ranheim has toured and collaborated with musicians across the musical-spectrum and has been a mainstay on the Pavilion stage for years with the Music Festival.

While each continues to pursue independent careers as individual musicians, they’ve found time over the years for regular tours of the Midwest and have three albums under their belts to date: their 2014 self-titled debut, and 2016’s Relay, and Home for Christmas.


Time for Three

Time for Three


As it happens, string and vocal trio Time for Three—or Tf3 for short—had a similar journey, though they describe themselves as more of a “classically trained garage band.” The 2003 brainchild of violinists Nicolas “Nick” Kendall and Zachary DePue, and double bass player Ranaan Meyer, the three musicians met at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, and the two violinists were at one time members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was an impromptu acoustic jam session, struck up to pass the time when a thunderstorm caused an electricity outage, that inspired them to take their ideas further. Coming together at first through a common interest in bluegrass and folk fiddling, it was Mr. Meyer who introduced ideas associated with jazz and improvisation into the blend.

When Mr. DePue left the band in 2015, the subsequent arrival of violinist Charles Yang encouraged the inclusion of vocals in the mix, creating the truly unique sound the group has today. Tf3, they say, “stands at the busy intersection of Americana, modern pop, and classical music,” which is shorthand for “pretty much anything goes” when it comes to dipping into musical eras, styles, and the various traditions to be found in Western music.

Alongside regular touring, Tf3 were artists-in-residence for 10 years with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and have been featured so often on NPR that the radio station’s website boasts a Tf3 webpage. Over the years, they have played everything from jazz clubs to NFL games with the Indianapolis Colts to an aircraft carrier in New York Harbor.

Mr. Kendall, the grandson of violinist and pedagogue John Kendall, started on his instrument at the age of 3 and gravitated as a teenager to the streets of his native Washington, D.C., where he played trash cans in exchange for lunch money. As comfortable in a rock band as he is in a symphony orchestra, he’s been an energetic advocate for bringing new audiences into concert halls.

Growing up in New Jersey, Mr. Meyer soon found his way to Philadelphia where he frequented the local jazz clubs while enjoying more classically focused time spent with the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra. A composer and passionate outside the box educator, he has founded teaching institutes in Wabash, Indiana, and Salt Lake City, Utah, as well as enjoying a significant recording career. He can also be found making music with his wife, Emily, in a duo called The Rockwins.

Recipient of the 2018 Leonard Bernstein Award, Texas-born Mr. Yang was taught violin by his mother. A graduate of the Juilliard School, he has been described by the Boston Globe as a musician who “plays classical violin with the charisma of a rock star.” Mr. Yang is a regular soloist with orchestras in the U.S. and abroad, and in 2005 the mayor of Austin, Texas, was so impressed that he presented Mr. Yang with his own “Charles Yang Day.”

A desire to bolster its repertoire has seen Tf3 commissioning a series of intriguing new works featuring the trio alongside symphony orchestras. Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto 4-3 was the first, premiered by Philadelphia Orchestra under Christoph Eschenbach in 2008. That was followed by Travels in Time for Three by Chris Brubeck in 2010 and then, in 2013, William Bolcom’s Games and Challenges, commissioned by the Indianapolis Symphony and Grand Rapids Symphony. Three successful albums led to the group’s signing with Universal Music Classics, and a fourth album included collaborations with cellist Alisa Weilerstein, jazz legend Branford Marsalis, and ukulele virtuoso Shimabukuro.

As a group, they are keen to break down barriers and broaden audiences, and their commitment to community and education saw their anti-bullying YouTube video version of the Kanye West/Daft Punk song “Stronger” featured on CNN.


Villalobos Brothers

Villalobos Brothers


Although they came to music via a somewhat different route, Contemporary Mexican prodigies the Villalobos Brothers also enjoy classical music pedigrees and have shared stages with classical powerhouses like the San Francisco Symphony.

Born and raised in Xalapa, Mexico, the three siblings—Alberto, Ernesto, and Luis—inherited a passion for playing violin from their grandmother, who would entertain workers and guests at rural fandangos or in local seafood restaurants. They soon were learning to sing and play piano, even becoming adept on jaranas, the thin-bodied Mexican guitar.

All three then went on to study abroad. Ernesto, the eldest brother, won a Fulbright Grant that took him to the Manhattan School of Music. Middle brother Alberto studied with Igor Oistrakh at the Royal Conservatory of Brussels before being selected by Pierre Boulez to join the Lucerne Festival Academy. Finally, Luis, the youngest, won a place at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg and then at Salzburg’s prestigious Mozarteum. As a trio, their original compositions and arrangements fuse the distinctive sounds and rhythms of the traditional music of their region in Mexico with elements of classical and jazz.

Over the years, their collaborations have been diverse and eclectic, including with Bruce Springsteen, Dolly Parton, and Regina Carter, while their performances have taken them from Latin America to India, Russia, Canada, and all across the United States with celebrated appearances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. They have been called on to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the United Nations and the 66th FIFA Congress in Mexico City.

Preaching a universal message of love, brotherhood, and social justice, in 2018, the Villalobos Brothers were a crucial part of the Fandango at the Wall project, where they joined forces with Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra in a live concert at the Tijuana-San Diego border wall.