Classically Trained, Bluegrass-Infused “Garage Band” Time for Three Has a Whole New Sound
Long familiar to Philadelphians for their upbeat, high-speed stand-up comedy-paced music, the Time for Three string trio is in a new phase oft-envisioned but out of reach.
Letters for the future is the title of the trio’s new album on the venerable Deutsche Grammophon label, which isn’t usually aimed at a self-proclaimed “classically trained garage band,” but it’s one that has attracted two Pulitzer Prize-winning composers eager to join them in their synthesis of bluegrass, classical — and now vocal harmony.
Yes, Time for Three now sings during concertos by Jennifer Higdon and Kevin Puts in the new recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Their voices are the first sounds heard in the piece Puts, titled Contactwhich premiered live on the East Coast on July 28 by the Saratoga Performing Arts Center Orchestra, which commissioned it with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.
The band played Higdon’s Concerto 4-3 since 2008, and because she left the trio in charge of cadences, its members began to add their voices. As if Time for Three needed to broaden its scope. “One day, a very dear friend told us that our artistic life would be easier if we could do less,” said bassist Ranaan Meyer. “Our biggest problem is that we can do so many different things.”
Try to stop them. The concerto draws heavily from Higdon’s upbringing in rural Tennessee, with each movement named after a river in the Smoky Mountains. The addition of vocals is meant to suggest harmonization around a campfire. “It feels like such a logical flow,” Higdon said in an email from Prague, where she’s showcasing her new piece. “And since I really like color shifts in my orchestration in general, having the vocals in there is a nice change.”
This altered DNA in the group is due in part to its newest member, Charles Yang, a 34-year-old Juilliard School graduate whose more reckless energy – unlike the other two members, who are married with children – makes him the canary of the group. in the coal mine. But as it pushes toward unexplored possibilities, it always feels like it’s cementing itself into a central aesthetic of its own.
“We found our sound,” Yang said, “but in our minds it’s an endless search, to stay curious.”
Having known the band members for years, Higdon was well acquainted with Time for Three’s musical abilities and in his concerto practically predicted where the band was going. Puts visited much more recent Time for Three live performances and set them in a lusher symphonic ground similar to his new opera, Hourswhich he essentially composed at the same time and which was premiered last year by the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Puts did not always consider starting with the vocals, which is perhaps unprecedented in the history of concertos. The effect is to ease the ears into the room. “It starts in unison and opens into triads,” Puts said in an email. “I imagined them singing it falsetto.” Unintentionally, the music is reminiscent of some of Brian Wilson’s most sophisticated pop music harmonies. The whole package is so appealing that the album could be a magnet for the Grammy Awards.
The bluegrass influence that was once so pervasive — and put Time for Three on the map after an impromptu performance in 2003 at the Mann Center, when a power outage prevented the Philadelphia Orchestra from delivering Beethoven — is still there. “We weren’t trying to be a bluegrass band. It is a tradition that demands respect. It’s deeply rooted in its history,” said fiddler Nicolas Kendall, who once played percussion on trash can lids in Rittenhouse Square. “We were just guests to these sounds – and like a release of our energy.”
At the beginning, the group was not full time. The original members – Kendall, Meyer and violinist Zach DePue – were in demand and in a rush. Kendall has performed with the East Coast Chamber Orchestra. Meyer teaches at the Wabass Institute at the Honeywell Arts Academy. And DePue became co-concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony. One way or another, the group worked in exhaustive tours and, over the years, released five albums. Although often hired as the opening act for headliners such as Chaka Khan, the trio was also called upon to do outreach for classical music organizations and its members were resident artists of the orchestra. ‘Indianapolis.
Eventually, DePue left the band to focus on the Indianapolis Orchestra, which he has since left, becoming concertmaster of the Carmel Symphony Orchestra in California. Time for Three recruited Nikki Chooi, who then left after landing a position as concertmaster at the Metropolitan Opera. Then in 2016 came Yang, who grew up in Austin, Texas, and has a diverse career that includes collaborations with choreographer Twyla Tharp. He had bumped into Time for Three periodically at music festivals and through mutual friends. One day Kendall called and asked her to come play. With Yang based in New York and Kendall in Washington, they met in between at Meyer’s in Cherry Hill.
When Yang got out of his rental car with some cool sunglasses and a skateboard, Meyer and Kendall sensed he was fine.
“We became brothers immediately,” Yang said. The bond is so close now that the relationship can be called “trigamy”. They don’t argue with that. The band were working on an album of “mash-ups” – lots of different styles clashing and arguing – but had already moved past it.
Vocalizing came easily. As a child, Meyer performed in a local musical theater. According to his biography on Wikipedia, Yang has another secret identity, known as “BoyWithUke”, whose music has the verb density of hip-hop but with folk ukulele accompaniment (Yang swears he knows nothing about this artist).
In any case, the band’s small concerto portfolio – by Higdon, William Bolcom and Chris Brubeck – was expanded by Puts, but due to pandemic postponements the recording came before the live premiere. Philadelphia Orchestra CEO and President Matías Tarnopolsky arranged to cover the recording costs. Conductor Michael Stern and the National Repertory Orchestra allowed pre-recorded playbacks so musicians could get their feet wet.
The actual September 2021 recording sessions conducted by Xian Zhang at Verizon Hall took place over two days, plus a “patch session”, all of which is a luxury rarely experienced by American orchestras, who record mainly in concert for economic reasons. It’s the kind of recording that changes the symphonic mainstream from within, with music that likely doesn’t exclude any subset of listeners, and suggests future works in a way that mash-ups (which tend to be special occasion music) don’t.
“We want to play with the greatest orchestras in the world. Not for vanity; …we can help them by progressing at a faster pace. It can open some minds,” Meyer said. “Even if we encounter institutions that do not reach out to us, we are always there, like intelligent golden retrievers, wagging their tails. …”