POSTED ON JULY 11, 2012:
Rocking in the Free World
Unusual duo gets its groove on
Okay, boys and girls. This is a harp. Strings, wedding music, angels. You know, all that crap. And this is a viola. It's like the violin's husky sister who plays softball. Can you guess what happens when you put them together?
That's right, class. You get some serious rocking.
At least you do from one particular pairing of these instruments. Tulsa's own Appassionata Duo -- made up of Tulsa Symphony musicians Jeff Cowen and Jill Wiebe -- brings rock music to a most unlikely place -- the strings of a viola and a harp, rather than those of a Stratocaster. Yes, there's a Strat/Stradivari pun in there to be had, but I'm on a deadline here, so cut me some slack.
When you see that the Appassionata Duo is going to play, and that they're a pair of symphony musicians who also play for the opera and the ballet, you probably assume that they will be playing a bunch of boring, somnambulistic stuff your grandparents listened to.
"We're not playing this long Beethoven sonata that no one's heard of," said harpist Wiebe. "We play recognizable stuff that's fun and that people catch onto quickly."
So yeah, that assumption would be a mistake. This really is a pair of classical musicians playing traditionally-classical instruments, but playing pop and rock tunes. And it's a hell of a lot of fun. And it's not just the novelty factor, either. The songs they're playing are standards in today's rock and pop realm.
"What we're playing -- it's like the 70s to the 90s right now. It just turns out that way," violist Cowen said. "There's some 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' some Journey in there. It's from this certain era, but it's a wide age range that recognizes these tunes. There's some classic stuff."
Wiebe spoke more directly and to the pair's music (and its somewhat ineffable nature).
"I don't know what we call it, or how we describe it. But we pick things that are very well known and sound good and have a good beat," she said. She stopped short of an "American Bandstand" crack.
Admittedly, it may be hard to wrap one's head around this concept. But once you hear "Sweet Child o' Mine" played by these two, you kind of get it. And it's really pretty cool. And coming to a stage near you.
As part of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust SummerStage Festival, the Appassionata Duo will perform the pop and rock music of its roots. Yes, you read that right: This group is rooted in pop and rock.
This, of course, begs one question: Who looked up and said, "We have a harp and a viola. Let's rock"?
"I wanted to play in bars," she said. And yes, there's a whole other article begging to be written in that one sentence.
One evening in 2010, the musicians were playing together, as is musicians' wont.
"I think 'Bohemian Rhapsody' was the first thing we played," Cowen added.
It was an immediate hit with the two.
"It just sounded really awesome with the viola," Wiebe said.
As it turns out, Cowen's viola filled a niche Wiebe hadn't really figured out. She had tried similar arrangements with a flute, among other instruments, but the sound never sat right with her.
"Strings are much more edgy," she said.
"The viola just fits really well in the vocal range," Cowen said. "I had read off piano music for years, so I just played the vocal line. It sounded great, and we were like, 'Man, we gotta do this.'"
So that's what they've done. Over the past two years, they've built a following, started a concert series, and now have just started a second one, all of which are chic little affairs held at the Harwelden mansion.
They're doing so on the aforementioned novelty only to a very small degree. As it turns out, both of them can flat play the hell out of their instruments. Add to that the familiar tunes, and there's a recipe for a lot of enjoyment.
"We're just doing acoustic stuff -- no lyrics, no singing, and a lot of time, people freak out," Cowen said. "They're like, 'Heart? On viola?'"
While their Harwelden concerts skew mostly toward music from the classical side of things with a pop tune thrown in here and there, Appassionata's SummerStage show is quite the opposite.
"It's kinda like 'Name That Tune.' People will be like, 'What is that, Journey?'" Cowen said. "When we play 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' there's always someone who tries to sing along. It's so funny. We've kind of evolved. Those tunes go back to when we started playing in restaurants and bars."
"We started this and were doing almost exclusively pop and rock stuff," she said. "Since the start of our duo, we've moved over into classical, and we have a concert series that's kind of more classically-oriented and we throw in some of the pops. Our key is to have music that's widely-appealing."
We all have those snippets of so-called classical music that we recognize and enjoy, but this particular show just has a little less of that stuff than do the concerts at Harwelden.
"With the SummerStage performance, this is kind of the once-a-year concert where we focus more on the pop stuff, even though we do throw in some classics like 'Claire de lune,'" Wiebe said.
To listen to the music of the Appassionata Duo is to listen to a pair of virtuosos doing what they love. And honestly, you can hear in the music that they're having the time of their lives.
"I love playing this stuff," Cowen said. "It's a blast. I'm playing better than I've ever played in my life. You're just so exposed. You're playing chamber music and you've gotta have it together, especially when you're standing next to her and the harp. I mean, nobody gives a shit about the viola guy. You gotta work hard."
Wiebe spoke along the same lines, asserting that technique -- or, actually knowing how to play your instrument -- can make or break.
"There's not any different technique to playing these kinds of songs as opposed to something with the symphony," she said. "It's just taking a song and making an arrangement of it. Like at the beginning of the Guns 'n' Roses song, I mean, it still sounds like a harp."
And "Bohemian Rhapsody" still sounds like "Bohemian Rhapsody," just with the very different timbres of these particular instruments.
"People are like, 'This is so cool,'" Cowen said. "But it's almost like they don't believe it until we get to the 'I see a little silhouetto of man' part. And people try to join in and sing, and man, that's great. We love that."
While Cowen is absolutely (and visibly) giddy about this musical venture, it is Wiebe who sums up both players' feelings about the Appassionata Duo.
"This is the best thing I've ever done. I've never enjoyed playing so much," she said. Coming from a musician, that means something.
The Appassionata Duo In Concert is presented at the PAC in the Robert J. LaFortune Studio on Sunday, July 15 at 4pm.
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