Take a Canadian oboe quartet with an Italian opera heart. Season with Gypsy fiddling, tangos and Anglo-Irish folk songs, heat over public-radio airplay and you have Quartetto Gelato, instant sensation. National Public Radio's 1996 debut artist of the year returns to Southern California for its Orange County debut Sunday in Fullerton.
"The name is a bit of a joke, obviously, but it describes the two sides of our personality, the serious and the not-so-serious," says Cynthia Steljes, who plays oboe and English horn with Quartetto Gelato. "The 'quartetto' part suggests the classical side and models such as Quartetto Italiano, and 'gelato' suggests different flavors and textures and weights.
"It started as four friends who got together to play chamber music, particularly the oboe quartet repertoire. But there isn't a lot of that, and the quartet became a vehicle for different styles of music, with everybody getting to play their other instruments. It began completely as a sideline for our own enjoyment, and we've tried to keep whatever we seemed to enjoy."
Audiences have responded to that joy, and now the sideline has become big business. The group's third CD on the Marquis Classics label, "Opera Fresca," is scheduled for a May release in the United States, and the quartet does 80 to 100 concerts a year.
Last week the musicians were driving around the Midwest, including a stop in St. Louis in a blizzard. Last night and tonight they perform with the Vancouver Symphony, flying into Los Angeles Sunday, then back out. They will back in April for a UCLA performance, and in May they will tour Taiwan and Japan.
Steljes is speaking by phone from her home in Toronto, during a brief hiatus between the blizzards and the visit to the El Nino-drenched West Coast. The other members of the foursome are violinist and mandolinist Peter De Sotto, who also does the singing; violist, accordionist and arranger Claudio Vena; and cellist and guitarist George Meanwell.
It is Meanwell who provides much of the group's signature patter, although all members take part, introducing numbers on the program.
"The talking began because we were never organized enough to get out a program, so we had to announce what we were playing," Steljes reports. "We grew up hearing the Canadian Brass and admiring their accessibility for the audience. It really opens up the audience, and it also provides a context for each work--our speaking is like a sorbet served between pieces. We also try to do everything from memory, to maintain that sense of spontaneity and contact with the audience."
For Quartetto Gelato's recent Swedish debut, Meanwell had his speeches translated into Swedish, which he learned phonetically. They will try something similar in Japan, Steljes says, although they will also have a native speaker accompanying them as master of ceremonies.
"The talking is prepared but not really scripted, and something always comes up that is different at each performance," Steljes says. "It is not necessary to the Quartetto Gelato experience, since it's not on the CDs, but it is a different way of experiencing our personalities."
Those personalities are principally expressed through music, and the Plummer Auditorium concert will feature music from the group's recordings, including the new CD.
"The new recording has an opera theme, although opera as heard through the ears of Quartetto Gelato," Steljes says. "Perhaps the most exciting is a medley from 'Turandot' in which we are joined by members of the Toronto Symphony, ending with 'Nessun Dorma.' Claudio has written a tango with a theme from an opera, and there is a quiz of sorts in the CD booklet, asking listeners to identify the theme and e-mail the answer."
Though their music covers a huge, eclectic range, it contains no jokes in the P.D.Q. Bach manner of musical malapropism.
"We do repertoire that comes from people within the group," Steljes says. "Whatever it is, there has been a connection to somebody in the group.
'We're not going to do idioms we're not qualified for--we have far too much respect for the idiom to go out and play bad jazz, for example. We try to take the music seriously, but not ourselves."
* Quartetto Gelato, presented by the Cal State Fullerton's PAIR Celebrity Series, will perform Sunday at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. 7 p.m. $23-$25. (714) 278-3347.