Violinist Zach DePue and his Time For Three bandmates dwell in that musical realm populated by Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Project, the double-bass adventures of Edgar Meyer and other topflight musicians who have plied their classical chops to the world's vernacular music to synthesize something new.
Librarians and record shopkeepers call it "crossover," and the history of DePue's band is rich with stories about wandering between the very formal world of the classical orchestra and that of the People's Music, whatever that may be. Frequently, the stories have to do with worlds colliding.
Like the time they were going to play in Rockford, Illinois, and promoted the concert with an interview on a hard-rock station there. "We went on live with two guys that had been playing Ozzy Osbourne to talk about what we do," DePue recalls by phone from a tour stop in Utah. "They said, 'OK, why don't we give you 30 seconds of our favorite rock tune, and you guys can just jam on it.' So they picked an Ozzy tune, and we turned it into a two-minute jam. We got done and their jaws were on the ground."
Time for Three is DePue, his fellow violinist Nick Kendall and double bassist Ranaan Meyer. They met in the late '90s at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where DePue and Kendall found that they had a mutual love of bluegrass fiddling. Meyer brought his affinity for jazz and improvisation, and a style was born. They play with the Cleveland Pops Orchestra this weekend at Blossom.
There's a lot about the three twentysomething guys that comes from the rock and roll playbook. They promote on MySpace, and their page is deep with messages from young women. Visitors to their website (www.timeforthree.com) are greeted by a short backstage video, in which the bandmates - wearing suits but no ties, their shirts un-tucked - look like groomsmen before their buddy's wedding, wondering how they got into such a classy thing.
Their second CD, released in January 2006, has a name that sounds like one friend scrawling a quick note to another: We Just Burned This for You! They're at work on a third that will involve forming their own label.
Originally from Bowling Green, DePue comes from a musical family, with a piano-playing mom, guitar-playing dad (who is a composer and professor emeritus of music composition at Bowling Green State University) and three older brothers who also play fiddle. He was taking violin lessons as a kid when his first so-called "crossover" experiences happened.
"My dad did two things with my brothers and me," he says. "He had a cider stand that he'd take to the county fairs around Ohio and Michigan, and he had sons studying violin. So at the county fairs, there would be fiddle contests. He'd say, 'My son can do that.' So he was thinking this would be a great way to pay some bills. The cider business flopped, but the fiddling kept going."
For a while the whole family played as the DePue Family Musicians, opening for the likes of Marie Osmond. As time went on, it became just the brothers. Zach absorbed style from a range of mentors, from his older siblings to Cleveland Orchestra concertmaster William Preucil, whom he met during a master class in Florida.
"He was the first classical violinist who really inspired me," says DePue. "I'd been impressed by [Itzhak] Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, but [Preucil] had a way of putting his personality into everything that made it so engaging. So it was like, I've got to play with this guy. So I came to CIM for a year, but then my dad retired, and we couldn't afford the tuition."
It took him two auditions to get into Curtis, where he studied under Ida Kavafian and Jaime Laredo. That's where he met "the guys" who would become Time for Three. He says he wasn't thinking about what kind of career he'd have, but was just taking what came along while he studied.
Bandmate Nick was never interested in an orchestral job. Ranaan had experience playing jazz but was interested in the orchestral life. They were playing together mostly for fun, when they put together a program for a 30-minute corporate gig for DuPont, which went so well that they were left scratching their heads, DePue says, and thinking, "Maybe we should do this again."
As their concert schedule got busy, they set down rules - principally that they'd never play background music, only concert programs. They also pursued classical careers (which for DePue has resulted in a concertmaster post with the Indianapolis Symphony). The trio got a big boost in 2003 when power went out during a Philadelphia Orchestra performance at the Mann Center. DePue and Meyer (who were in the orchestra at that point) helped fill time with an impromptu jam session featuring "The Orange Blossom Special" and other tunes far removed from the symphonic repertoire. Their career took off, and by 2007 they were playing more than 150 gigs a year, in addition to individual pursuits.
With a background in jazz and strong improvisational skills, Meyer evolved as the group's composer. That's partly because DePue and Kendall both thought of writing music in a structured way, while Meyer would simply write what he was feeling or make lead sheets that the three of them would turn into music, based on whatever direction their improvisation took.
"Nick and I still bring this very classical attitude to this music," says DePue. "Ranaan will say, 'I don't want it to be classical - I want it to be Time for Three.' It's cause for a lot of discussion on our part."
DePue thinks the appeal of their music, especially for traditionally classical audiences, has to do with the quest for American identity. "We've been celebrating European classical music for decades," he says. "I don't think people necessarily don't like classical, but I really think they want to identify with what they are hearing. People are starting to say they're Americans rather than their melting-pot cultures, and people need music they identify with. Cleveland has one of the most traditional orchestras and audiences in the world. Hopefully, we can bring what we do to them.
That would be a huge trip for me. On so many levels."