Having an orchestra draw on Americana inspirations — be it through collaborations with the genre's instrumental pioneers or performances of its most established compositions — isn't entirely new. But scan the repertoire of Time for Three, the industrious string trio that teams with the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday, and you will find songs that ensembles and symphonies, regardless of their Americana inclinations, have to view as a touch foreign.
Like what, for instance? Like an outrageously dramatic arrangement of Kanye West's Stronger, an elegiac reading of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and a stark but lovingly regal take on Imogen Heap's Hide and Seek. Match that with a jazz-inspired concerto composed by Chris Brubeck that Time for Three performed with the Boston Pops at the trio's Carnegie Hall debut earlier this month, and you have a set of entirely new classical crossover possibilities.
"The thing this music provides us that is really wonderful is a little more freedom and flexibility interpretively," said violinist Zach De Pue, who with fellow violinist Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer make up Time for Three. "And that really helps us in approaching material by Kanye West as opposed, to say, Beethoven.
"But it's funny. A guy like Beethoven, ... we have such a preconceived knowledge of what his music should sound like. But if you read about his interactions with string quartets, he seems pretty rock star-esque.
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"Because we are playing modern repertoire, we're able to utilize an approach that I honestly think is not that far off from the way you play Beethoven. You embrace the personality, you embrace the style, the rhythm, the groove, ... all these things. With any type of artist, our job is to utilize our technique to capture that spirit. There is always that dialect within every type of artist and their material that we try to capture."
Formed as a means of extracurricular fun when its members were studying at the Curtis Institute for Music in Philadelphia, Time for Three represents numerous influences that fall well outside the spectrum of what is considered classical music. Meyer, for instance, has a long-standing love of jazz and improvisational music; De Pue and Kendall have favored more Americana-inclined shades of bluegrass and country.
"I grew up with three brothers," De Pue said. "We all played violin and we all grew up playing Appalachian-style fiddle contests in the summertime. My brother Alex continued the art form and got really deep into Texas-style fiddling.
"There is a whole style of American roots music and folk music that has been born and bred here on this land. The same thing happened in Europe with great composers embracing the music of their lands. But you're really seeing a lot of that in this country coming from guys like Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer (no relation to Ranaan Meyer). Those guys grew up on roots music and crossed over into classical. Now you're finding a lot of composers taking pride in the fact that American roots music is a real sound, a real dialect. (Aaron) Copland certainly tapped into that. But I think you are really starting to see the floodgates open to this kind of music. You're seeing classical supporters get more excited and almost taking ownership of this artistic product because it relates so naturally to us as people."
By now, classical audiences have become accepting of the works of composers like Copland, who will be represented at Friday's performance by an orchestral suite from his 1938 ballet Billy the Kid. But West? Heap? Cohen? How does your everyday symphony set respond to that?
"Fortunately for us, the reaction has been very positive," De Pue said. "We definitely try to bring the artistic level of classical music, and what it takes to put on a classical music performance — the intensity and the focus — to anything and everything we do repertoire-wise, whether it's familiar or unfamiliar. We try to bring that level of innovation and structure we've grown to really love in classical music.
"So far we've had success with that. But any time you're being truly innovative, certainly some things may work and some things may turn a classical audience off. But we have a great track record so far. Part of that success comes from continuing to work diligently and tirelessly to make sure all of this music works at a high level.
"What that really comes down to, I guess, is being open to anything at any time musically. So who knows where the next step will take us."