Eclectic ETHEL to perform at the Eccles
The word "ethel" means noble in Old English.
These days the word is more associated with ETHEL, an experimental string quartet featuring violist Ralph Farris, cellist Dorothy Lawson and violinists Kip Jones and Tema Watstein.
The group, which was founded in 1998, keeps its foot firmly in the classical-music world, and has expanded the boundaries of a string quartet’s repertoire.
To showcase that mission in Park City, ETHEL will perform with rock ‘n’ roll icon Todd Rundgren at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, today, Saturday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m.
For violinist Watstein, ETHEL’s experimental side comes naturally.
"I think one of the exciting things that is going on in the classical-music world right now is that all of the definitions are being expanded," Watstein said, during a telephone interview with The Park Record from New York City. "There are certainly traditional ensembles out there, but you would be hard-pressed to find what some people would call a typical string quartet these days.
"I would say that one of the most important things that we try to do is break through that thick wall that separates the high-art performers from the audience," she said.
To do that, ETHEL tries to be communicative and welcoming to audiences by playing music that is invigorating, relatable and exciting, Watstein explained.
"We also talk with audiences and try to explain what we feel about our music in a personal way so they will, hopefully, engage with us more effectively," she said.
Of course, another way to connect with a wide audience is to work with musicians in different music genres.
That’s how ETHEL teamed up with Rundgren nearly a decade ago, when it performed a concert in New York’s Central Park with Joe Jackson and Rundgren.
"It was a three-tiered show and ETHEL collaborated with Todd on a couple of songs, which were very well received by the audience," Watstein said.
From there, Rundgren’s and ETHEL’s respective managers put their heads together and set up a three-month world tour, during which the artists collaborated on a handful of arrangements.
"It was interesting for ETHEL because it was just Todd and the string quartet, so there were no bass or drums, or anything that had to do with a rock band," said Watstein, who wasn’t part of the original collaboration. "That tour was a success, and Todd wanted to do it again with us this past season, so it’s been really great for us."
The Park City show will include a mix of works by ETHEL and Rundgren, she said.
"We will start the concert with a set of our own, which will focus on music of the 1970s," Watstein said. "We’ll play arrangements of pieces by Herbie Hancock, and some that were written by our own violinist Kip Jones, and then we’ll be joined by Todd later on."
Watstein began playing violin when she was five years old.
"My parents asked me, ‘If you could play any instrument, what would it be?’ and I said, ‘The flute,’ and they said, ‘Well, here’s a violin,’" she said with a laugh. "It wasn’t my chosen instrument, but after many years of forced practicing, I developed a strong affinity for it."
Watstein’s parents are both doctors, and, aside from the fact that her father supported himself through college by playing jazz piano, there wasn’t much live music played in the house.
"I don’t come from a strong musical family, but my parents have always encouraged me to pursue a career in arts," she said. "In fact, my dad grew up attending the Tanglewood Music Festival every summer with his dad, and from the time I was born, my dad would take me as well. I believe those concerts instilled a strong love a music in me."
Watstein joined ETHEL last spring, after attracting the ear of the group’s founding violist Farris
"I was finishing up my master’s degree and playing a gig with a dance company and Ralph happened to be at that show," Watstein remembered. "He approached me mysteriously and asked if I was interested in an opportunity.
"As a graduate student, I was saying ‘yes’ to everything that was offered to me at the time," Watstein said with another laugh.
The opportunity turned out to be an audition for ETHEL, and Watstein impressed the group.
"The funny thing was that it was a serendipitous meeting that ended up extremely well for me," she said. "When I first moved to New York three years ago, I did some freelance writing work for a music blog called Sequenza21, and my very first interview was with Dorothy, the cellist of ETHEL.
"I did a big profile on the group’s upcoming album at the time, so I knew all about the quartet and the whole gamut of projects that they have been involved in," Watstein said. "It was sort of funny to come full circle in those three years from approaching them from the outside and then being approached from the inside."
Although Watstein has been in the group for less than a year, she already has experienced many artistic rewards.
"First of all, it’s such an opportunity for me to just be out of school and working with people so experienced and successful in the music industry," she said. "I think the luckiest aspect of playing in ETHEL is that the experiences encompasses a full range of musical activity.
"I mean, we get to improvise, rock out and play fun music, but also get to perform more serious concert music," she said. "We also do a lot of work with students and new composers and that is really fun."
Another reward for Watstein is traveling.
"That’s particularly exciting for me," she said. "I’ve been in the group less than a year, but I’ve traveled all over the place and am looking forward to coming to Park City."
The Park City Performing Arts Foundation will present string quartet ETHEL and rock-music pioneer Todd Rundgren at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, April 6, at 7:30 p.m. The concert will feature a blend of classical, rock and experimental music. Tickets range from $20 to $67 and are available by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org . For more information, visit http://www.ethelcentral.org .
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