Time for Three (Tf3), a young, hip, classically trained trio that defies genre classification, was born out of the most random of circumstances.
The trio — double bassist Ranaan Meyer and violinists Zachary de Pue and Nicolas Kendall — technically started out a decade ago. “We were the three oddballs at the Curtis Institute that got together to jam. After serious classical rehearsals, we would blow off steam by playing together — jazz, hip-hop, or bluegrass. The Curtis administration got wind of this and hired us out for gigs. Often we get questioned about it. But the administration always had our backs. So did the teachers and the students. We still come back to do master classes.
“We got the big break in 2003,” says Meyer. On that famous night, an electrical storm blew out the electricity at Philadelphia’s Mann Center for the Performing Arts during a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra. While technicians fixed the lighting, Meyer and De Pue (then members of the orchestra) jammed in the darkness, playing material they were doing for Tf3 — bluegrass, jazz, country western, improvisation. Forming Tf3 made it possible for Meyer and De Pue, as “classical” musicians, to step up and improvise, something nobody else in the orchestra was able to do. Their impromptu performance thrilled the audience.
That performance put Tf3 on the musical map, but in the ensuing decade Tf3 has grown from a niche into an enterprise. The ensemble performs on Tuesday, March 6, as part of Princeton University’s department of music’s chamber music series.
But this is not Tf3’s first visit to the Princeton campus. During the fall, 2011, semester the ensemble and the School of Architecture initiated a novel collaboration. Tf3 became the client for “Building and Technology,” the required ARC 311 class, where undergraduates learn the basics of structural design and make a prototype of a structure. The ensemble played for the class and spelled out their needs for a concert environment.
Students were divided into four groups, each of which came up with a solution that considered Tf3’s acoustic, lighting, and space needs for a performance structure, its portability, and the aesthetic means that would best convey the image of the group. As U.S. 1 went to press, Tf3 and the student designers were reviewing the designs that emerged and concluding whether the resulting prototypes might be displayed at the March 6 concert.
Professor of architecture Nat Oppenheimer, who teaches ARC 311, writes via E-mail: “Students in an architecture program often do not have the opportunity to experience the dynamics of a project from start to finish with a malleable program and a client. It felt more like the students were working with a peer than for a venerable institution. At some point they’ll have to learn to deal with the venerable institution but this was a good stepping stone, in my opinion. It took them out of the classroom and, I believe, really made them feel like they were engaged in the world around them.”
Meyer has not been in touch with the architecture students since the early stages of the project in November. “The students designed prototypes of what our onstage experience could look like. Every group has some sort of branding. It’s not just a matter of lights or sound gear. There were really exciting, really cool prototypes that complemented what Tf3 is like. The projects were all different. Maybe the students have come up with something we could actually use. It might be something that would last for a good amount of our career. Perhaps we could take the designs to investors and make something happen.”
The March 6 program draws from a list of almost three dozen works. The stockpile of songs includes compositions by bassist Meyer, by the group working together, by classical composers, and by contemporary composers. It includes traditional tunes and pop songs.
It also includes “mashups,” pieces where classical works are co-opted into contemporary tunes. For one of mashups, the U2 song “With or Without You” is wedded to the Sibelius Violin Concerto. Tf3 assembled its six present mashups within the last six months.
An announcement of what is to be played will be made from the stage. “We always change the set depending on what we feel at the time, bassist Meyer says in a phone interview as he travels by car from one engagement to another in Pennsylvania (State Police note: He assured me he was using a headset).
The Richardson concert precedes Tf3’s Carnegie Hall debut on March 8. “We don’t consider it a rehearsal for Carnegie Hall,” Meyer says. “We don’t consider anything a rehearsal. Whenever we play we are playing for real. We try to give the same amount of respect to any place and any people we are playing for.
“When we perform we relate pop and mainstream music to classical repertoire that has stood the test of time. It highlights the fact that music is just music. It’s a language. We don’t want to keep genres away from each other.”
Neither does the ensemble want to separate the concert hall from its surroundings. In addition to the March 6 concert, Tf3 has set up a schedule of surprise “pop-up” performances the day before the concert, on Monday, March 5. The unannounced concerts — on campus and in town — will give those lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time an up-close encounter with the ensemble. Some of these flash performances include: 10:30 a.m., Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street; 1:30 p.m., lobby of the Princeton Public Library on Witherspoon Street; 3 p.m., gallery of the Frist Campus Center on campus; and 4 p.m., Labyrinth Books, 122 Nassau Street.
In the early years the ensemble was nurtured by Astral Artists, the Philadelphia-based nonprofit that assists the career development of promising classical musicians. Originally, the ensemble acted as its own producer; in the last three years they have turned to Steve Hackman, a fellow Curtis colleague, for creative help behind the scenes.
Since 2009 Tf3 has held a three-year residency with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. The appointment, which would have expired this year, has been extended for another three years. At the outset the ensemble “inherited” — Meyer’s word — the symphony’s Happy Hour concert series, which attracted an audience of 200 at the time. “Now 1,100 people come,” he says. “A lot of them have never stepped into a concert hall before. They check out a Happy Hour show, see it’s not mystifying, and then go on to check out Beethoven or Mahler.”
Tf3’s Happy Hours take place Thursday nights. A major sponsor is Stella Artois, the Belgian beer producer. “We serve beer, wine, and cocktails that fit the vibe of the show,” Meyer says. “There is upper-end food provided by local restaurants who give samples of what they serve. At the last concert there were 14 restaurant booths. At 6:30 the concert begins. People can bring their drinks in. Once the show starts, the bells and whistles don’t matter; the music is so terrific. We play as a trio or as a trio with orchestra. Sometimes the orchestra plays alone. Sometimes we bring a band.
“We’re catering to young professionals in a musical way that makes a lot of sense by highlighting classical hits as well as the music of our time. That was done before 1900 by major composers, who put traditional folk music into a contemporary musical context and made it resonate. We’re trying to bring that tradition back to life. The only difference is that we don’t have to go out to the farm to find folk music. We can go to YouTube or iTunes.”
Including the Indianapolis residency, which occupies four weeks during the season and one week in the summer, Tf3 spends 26 weeks a year performing and rehearsing. The ensemble spends additional time for what Meyer calls “creation and incubation”; last season that component came to 10 weeks.
Meeting places have to be juggled. Meyer lives in Philadelphia. Violinists De Pue and Kendall live in Indianapolis.
At 34 Meyer is the oldest member of the ensemble, edging out Kendall by a few months. De Pue is a year younger than the two.
In addition to Tf3 Meyer has a duo with Norma Meyer, his mother. This spring the two expect to record a disc that “goes all the way from classical to funk rock, to rhythm and blues,” Meyer says. “I just wrote five new pieces for bass and piano. In the spring I’ll write five more.”
How can Meyer count on being able to write five pieces, I wonder. “I just do it,” he says. “I believe in target dates. I know when a project needs to be completed, and I put aside the time to complete it. I like to have a deadline. I’m not a procrastinator; I’m generally pretty ahead of schedule.
“I compose all the time,” he says. “I keep a rolodex of ideas, arranged by titles of pieces. Some things stay in my brain, my hard drive. When working on a project a lot of ideas pop up. When I’m writing something I can mostly remember what I wrote before, and it organically meshes. I don’t try to force it. I memorize everything and don’t use a score. Most people like to read music. Sometimes that makes working with others challenging.”
Tf3 is devoted to pursuing educational outreach and has put on more than 500 events in hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. “We empower kids to follow their dreams. We have the power to engage them,” Meyer says. Tf3’s inspirational music video “Stronger” has an anti-bullying message. It can be found at www.Timeforthree.com or on YouTube. The ensemble finds it educational outreach sites mostly by word of mouth. “We turn down gigs,” Meyers says. We only have 21 weeks, apart from Indianapolis. We fit in what we can.”
Time for Three, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Tuesday, March 6, 8 p.m. The genre-defying trio of country western, bluegrass, jazz, and improvisation musicians that began as a “classical garage band” at the Curtis Institute. In collaboration with the Princeton University School of Architecture. $10; $5 students. 609-258-9220 or princetonuniversityconcerts.org.