Quartetto Gelato means "ice-cream quartet," and it gives a good impression of the group. There is something of a stroll down a sunny sidewalk - probably in Italy - in their nature. Far from being an uber-serious classical music quartet, this ensemble, with its mixture of violin, accordion, oboe, and cello, has a nonchalant side.
The four members, who play without printed music in front of them, can take audiences on a tour of musical styles ranging from gypsy serenades to baroque opera arias. Several of the group's members play multiple instruments, switching among them as the music requires. The group's founder, Peter DeSotto, even sings. It's an eclectic, decidedly fun combination that has catapulted the group into the world of international fame and sold-out concerts. This Friday they will bring it all to the Met in Spokane.
Fame and success, however, was not what DeSotto had in mind when he founded the group with his wife, Quartetto Gelato's oboist Cynthia Steljes.
"We didn't really have a master plan," DeSotto laughs. "I'd like to say that I went away to a monastery and went into deep meditation and figured out this great concept. But it really wasn't anything like that. I was playing in the Toronto Symphony at the time, and I knew I had this voice, and I needed an outlet where I could start singing. I didn't have the guts to quit my job with the Toronto Symphony, which is a great job, and perhaps make it in opera - perhaps not. So I put the group together just so that I could try performing in front of people and sing major arias. And before I could really get much more involved in my operatic career we ended up with 70 concerts in our first season. After that our destiny was cut out for us."
With their relaxed stage presence and wide range of musical styles, Quartetto Gelato was able to make musical inroads with both traditional and nontraditional audiences. People who had never listened to classical music before found themselves enjoying concerts filled with Italian opera arias, and more seasoned concert-goers discovered themselves smiling at the virtuosic tangos and folk songs the group performed. The initial season of success continued. "We were scared!" DeSotto exclaims, recalling the time. "Suddenly we were thrown on the world stage, playing in the same places as Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman. I had an orchestral job and wasn't expecting it! We tried not to think about why we were popular too much, because the more we thought about it, the more contrived we became. We always wanted it to be a really natural, organic process."
That feeling is apparent in the way that the quartet performs - from memory, without music, responding to each other even when they're placed far apart onstage. "Part of our process, when we were first rehearsing, was developing a kind of sixth sense of what other people were doing onstage," De Sotto explains. "We thought the easiest way for us to do that would be to memorize our parts. So we started with little bits just as an exercise. And after a while, we knew the music so well that we decided not to bother with music at all. But the very first time with an audience was terrifying, because you end up looking at the ceiling, in the audience, and at the floor, but your music's not there!"
The memorization process was something that helped De Sotto and Steljes even more, however, when they found themselves auditioning new members for the quartet. After their cellist and accordionist - the bass and harmonic elements of the quartet - decided to retire, the ensemble faced an uncertain future. "Quartetto Gelato was built so much on the personality of the individual players," De Sotto says, "that we were very concerned when the two members decided to retire." But the players that the group hired -- accordionist Alexander Sevastian and cellist Kristina Reiko Cooper - both came to their auditions with the quartet's entire repertoire memorized.
"We thought right away that these two were natural Quartetto Gelatians," De Sotto chuckles. "So the next step was to see how they interacted with an audience onstage. And it turned out that Kristina is very quirky and fun, and Alex comes with a heavy Russian accent and a brilliant sense of humor. So it brings a facelift to Quartetto Gelato that was so unexpected. And it came out to be even better than before. We were looking for great musicians, and we got great friends as a bonus."