To call Quartetto Gelato an eclectic ensemble would be, at best, an understatement. Interesting? Yes.
A little bit out to lunch? You could say that.
Even the members of the musical group realize how unconventional their shows are.
“Our oboe player, Colin Maier, plays 14 different musical instruments. I describe him as a freak,” said tenor, violinist and group founder Peter DeSoto.
The members of Quartetto Gelato — which also includes Elizabeth McLellan and Alexander Sevastian — don’t just sit down and perform, classical ensemble style; they give the type of show that likely leaves them sweaty, tired and out of breath.
McLellan is a polished cellist, DeSoto an operatic tenor, Sevastian a four-time world champion accordion player and Maier has a day job as a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. The result is a show that DeSoto calls a “musical circus.”
“We have a couple of pieces where, while Colin is playing his virtuoso showpieces, going a million miles per hour, he also will stand on two chairs and we’ll pull him apart so he goes into a full Jean-Claude Van Damme spilt. It’s so incredible.”
Russian kicks, the worm and flips are also part of Maier’s on-stage dance move repertoire.
Sevastian, a native of Belarus, has won the Oslofjord in Norway, Cup of the North in Russia, and the Anthony Galla-Rini Accordion Competition and the Coupe Mondiale in the U.S. His accordion playing, DeSoto said, is at times so fast, it’s hard to believe it’s actually an accordion he’s playing.
Based in Ontario, Quartetto Gelato made its debut in the early ’90s, after being founded simply as a pastime for four friends. Back then, the group included oboe and English horn player Cynthia Steljes, who passed away from a rare form of asbestos-related lung cancer in 2006.
“It started out as close friends just getting together to play for their own enjoyment,” DeSoto said. “We picked music and a repertoire that would amuse us. We weren’t really trying to cater to a formula that would please many people, but it was what we liked. It just so happened that what we liked was what everybody else loved, so we ended up getting a great following immediately.”
In its first year, Quartetto Gelato sold more than 50,000 CDs, toured around the world, and, soon afterwards, won National Public Radio Performance Today’s Debut Artist of the Year. in 2007, the group’s first DVD, “Quartetto Gelato: A Concert in Wine Country” was picked up by PBS for broadcast throughout the United States and is still aired on the channel regularly.
“I was playing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra back then, so I ended up quitting my job,” DeSoto said of the group’s unexpected success.
“We didn’t expect it for a second. It was just for fun, and then the next thing you know, we had so many concerts in our first year.”
To date, the group has been nominated for Juno and Gemini awards, sold more than 150,000 CDs — one of which even made it into space, brought aboard the space shuttle Columbia by Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk in 1997 — and its music has been featured on the soundtrack for the movie “Only You.”
They’ve performed with the Toronto and Quebec symphony orchestras and at music festivals and prestigious events around the world.
Their live shows, DeSoto said, are definitely varied.
“The show is a mix of art forms featuring acrobatics, dance, theatrics, classical masterworks, operatic arias and the sizzling energy of tangos, gypsy and folk songs,” he explained.
Each of the four musicians is featured in the shows as a soloist.
“I guess I’m meant for the stage,” DeSoto said. “I have a big personality, and as much as I loved playing in the symphony orchestra, I feel much more artistic in this group, and people can hear me.
“Our music, in a way, comes from our alter-egos, and now it’s all about creating a higher, faster, louder musical circus.”
Quartetto Gelato, who performed in St. John’s once, in 1993, will perform at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre on Thursday, March 24. Tickets are $30 ($24 for students and seniors) and can be bought at the Arts and Culture Centre box office or by calling 729-3900.
“We’re really looking forward to it,” DeSoto said. “Newfoundland was one of my favourite places to tour to.”