Well Strung: A Quartet with Entendres of Inspiration

By Mark Thomas Ketterson

These guys are really well strung. Yes, you read that correctly. Well-Strung, the delightful “singing string quartet,” comprises violinists Edmund Bagnell and Chris Marchant (the ensemble’s founder), violist Trevor Wadleigh, and cellist Daniel Shevlin. Since debuting in 2012, these wickedly creative young musicians have been turning stages sideways with their trim vocals and highly individual synthesis of classical and pop repertory.

Well-Strung began as a theatrical performance sketch in Provincetown, MA. Three of the quartet had been pursuing theater as well as instrumental study—Bagnell jokes about juggling summer stock with violin camp—while violist Wadleigh has a pure classical pedigree. “We’ve evolved [from those shows],” Bagnell says. “We have theatrical elements still, but at first it was more scripted. It was nice to be able to flex [a creative muscle], because as an actor you are often told to do X, Y, and Z. We found we really liked playing with one another. We started doing our own arrangements, and we resonated to what the audiences reacted to, and to what we wanted to do ourselves. Now we function more like a band.”

This band’s brand is something unique, indeed. A zip through their albums and YouTube videos reveals an astonishing level of stylistic eclecticism and virtuosity, from fresh-spirited traversals of Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to envelope-pushing fusions of Grieg’s First String Quartet with Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” and the down-home vocals of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia merged with bits of Bach. Listen to that last one and try to keep your feet still. “We don’t stick to any one genre,” Bagnell explains, “We pull from both a wide breadth of pop and a wide breadth of classical. We respond to music we like. Good music is good music, and if something speaks to our instrumentation and voices, we go for it.”

The ensemble’s artistic soul is probably best displayed in the pop–classical mashups they have amusingly dubbed “popssicals.” “Our first popssical was Kelly Clarkson mashed with Eine kleine Nachtmusik. They had a similar energy,” Bagnell remembers. “We have another with Taylor Swift and Aaron Copland. There was such joy in the Copland piece and fun in the Taylor Swift.” Sometimes their choices juxtapose in unexpected ways, as in a marvelous amalgam of the Bach/Gounod Ave Maria with Radiohead’s “Creep.” “We look for thematic elements, like this deeply religious music mashed up with ‘Creep,’ where a guy speaks about an unattainable woman with this almost obsessive, worshiping quality. They just kind of spoke to each other.”

Along the way, they have enjoyed some intriguing interfaces with American culture. “Chelsea’s Mom,” their tribute to Hillary Clinton, gained huge notoriety when Clinton herself tweeted out the music video. Marchant and Wadleigh were even featured on The Amazing Race, participating as Team Well-Strung. The lads are obviously classically attractive, and their hunk factor is invariably mentioned in their press. So is the term “openly gay” (a rather antiquated expression that really should be kicked to the curb with the shag carpeting). “We are proud of who we are,” Bagnell affirms, “and if it does something positive for the national discussion, that is a good thing. It’s a sound bite for the media, but it’s not a hallmark of who we are as a group. Our music can appeal to everyone. Certainly, we have a gay following, but we are very family-friendly; Grandma likes us, the grandkids like us, and everyone in between.” It’s this appeal that brings Well-Strung to Ravinia’s Martin Theatre on June 21, as well as to Chicago’s Center on Halsted for a music-and-conversation event in association with the festival on the preceding night.

Well-Strung is passionate about music education, and their popularity has gone some distance in bringing new listeners to classical repertoire. “Many people who come to see us are hearing classical music live for the first time. There’s nothing bad about that; it’s a centuries-old art form. We get a lovely reaction. Some will come back and say, ‘My favorite thing was that classical piece you did.’ That’s really cool. It’s hard to break that barrier. But classical music is just good music, and if it’s presented in a more accessible way, it’s easier to hear that.”

At Ravinia, Well-Strung will be treating the audience to a preview of music that is soon to be featured on the quartet’s third album. And Well-Strung’s genre-defying style is what Ravinia is all about. “We are thrilled to come,” Bagnell concludes, “It’s lovely to be included with all these wonderful artists. And we want people to walk away saying they had a really good time.” ▪

Mark Thomas Ketterson is the Chicago correspondent for Opera News. He has also written for the Chicago Tribune, Playbill, Chicago magazine, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, and Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center.