Combining genres of American music

Time for Three will play Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto 4-3” in the final Philadelphia Orchestra concer


Violinists in a major orchestra like the Philadelphia Orchestra might enjoy “crossing over” to play a few jazz riffs or even a pop tune or two. But Zachary De Pue, a member of the orchestra until this past season, when he became the concertmaster of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, has found an alternate career with his group Time for Three.

“We try everything,” De Pue said. “We arrange rock, bluegrass, country-western or jazz tunes. We write original tunes. We use metaphors and encapsulate ideas from classical to gypsy idioms. It’s crazy stuff.”

Time for Three will play Jennifer Higdon’s “Concerto 4-3” in the final Philadelphia Orchestra concert on Saturday and will close the Saratoga Chamber Music Festival series on Sunday. Last season, the group debuted on the series and was such a hit, artistic director Chantal Juillet said, that she asked them back.

Big opportunity

This is big stuff for a group of former music school friends who got together just for fun. De Pue, violinist Nicholas Kendall and bassist Ranaan Meyer were students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when they discovered they had a common interest in improvisation. As they developed a format and repertoire, school officials were impressed enough to ask the group to play at a corporate dinner. That was seven years ago.

Time for Three

WHERE: Saratoga Performing Arts Center

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday, Philadelphia Orchestra plays Orff and Higdon; 2:15 p.m. Sunday, Saratoga Chamber Music Festival, Spa Little Theatre.

HOW MUCH: $72.50 to $31, $18 to $10 lawn (orchestra); $41.50 to $36.50 (chamber festival)

MORE INFO: 584-9330 or visit

De Pue went on to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra for five years. Meyer became an occasional sub with the orchestra and Kendall actively freelanced. They continued to play together around Philadelphia until one summer a couple of years ago, when the Philadelphia Orchestra was playing a concert at the Mann Center near Philadelphia and the lights went out.

While people waited for the power to come back on, a few of the orchestra’s musicians suggested to De Pue that it would be the perfect time for Time for Three to entertain the crowd. As it happened, Kendall was in the audience and Meyer was subbing in the orchestra.

“It was a huge step,” De Pue said. “More than 4,500 people listened for 40 minutes and enjoyed it. The audience had a blast and there were calls to do more concerts. It was a revelation to me that a classical music audience could enjoy American root music.”

De Pue juggled his schedule to accommodate the group’s growing number of concerts, but after playing 130 concerts in 2007, the group decided to call a halt.

“It was too many concerts. It had turned into a monster,” he said. “Ranaan needed some alone time and Nick needed more classical music. I needed the structure of the orchestra repertoire.”

They still wanted to keep their hand in, though, but wanted to avoid playing pops concerts, De Pue said. They also felt they needed more depth as performers. So they went to conductor Christoph Eschenbach for suggestions.

“He said he’d help us in any way,” De Pue said. “He suggested Jennifer Higdon write us a piece.”

It was an excellent choice. Not only was Higdon’s work well-known to the orchestra — she was its composer-in-residence — but De Pue knew her from childhood when he used to race down the halls at Bowling Green University, where his father taught composition and she was one of his students. Even better, Higdon knew what his group sounded like.

“I know the guys well — their sense of humor and their playing,” Higdon said from Philadelphia, where she lives four blocks from the Kimmel Center. “I had their sound in my ears.”

Higdon, who is also a flutist, is one of the most widely performed American composers today. She writes up to six hours every day with the rest of most days taken up with her duties with the orchestra, talking to donors or patrons, lecturing at open rehearsals or at universities or just being available for a variety of things. She has so many commissions that she often must turn down requests.

“It’s a great problem to have and very validating,” Higdon said. “But I get brain-tired and body-exhausted.”

She made an exception for the Time for Three piece, she said. She knew the players and their capabilities — a prerequisite for her — and she knew bluegrass and its stylistic oddities from her days in Tennessee. The bigger challenges were to coordinate the bluegrass elements with the orchestral sections, slip in enough controlled improvisation passages to give the piece a free quality, and to have the work be suitable and serious enough for a regular orchestral series and not a pop concert.

Capturing flavor

“I made a lot of guesses to capture their flavor and expertise,” Higdon said.

She works like Beethoven did, she said laughing.

“I write something 12 different ways to make it work. I toss a lot of stuff and may hold onto a sketch. I hear it in my head but not clearly — like through a foggy windshield,” she said. “I figure out what will go and craft it to make it interesting. If it’s hard for the performers, it will be hard for the audience. Music should communicate and be tailored to suit the soloist or the orchestra.”

Higdon did well. She wrote “Concerto 4-3” in four months. Time for Three premiered it last January with the orchestra.

“Jennifer captured a lot of what we do, but kept her own voice,” De Pue said. “We wrote our cadenzas, but memorized a lot of it because 75 percent of it is through composed. It’s wild stuff.”

Also on the orchestral concert will be Orff’s “Carmina burana,” which Higdon said was a perfect fit with her piece.

“The concert will be a doozie,” she said, laughing.

Categories: Life and Arts

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