Post-Classical Meets Rock-n-Roll: Todd Rundgren and ETHEL in Chicago

Pick_Staiger_logo_250wThe Northwestern University Bienen School of Music’s Side by Side music festival  featured an impressive lineup of unorthodox musical partnerships, none more idiosyncratic than the electromagnetic combination of the self-desribed post-classical string quartet ETHEL and 70s pop/rock icon Todd Rundgren. “Sorry, I got a little carried away with myself,” said Rundgren from the bench of his grand piano, trying to start a tune without blundering. The song Compassion, which he restarted twice, is one of his lesser known singles, yet his audience at Pick-Staiger Hall on the Northwestern campus in Suburban Chicago on Friday, April 2, 2013, sat in rapt attention even as he interrupted his own singing with occasional self-deprecating giggles.

Singer/songwriter Todd Rundgren (photo credit:

Singer/songwriter Todd Rundgren (photo credit:

It is safe to say that Rundgren would never have passed for a classical performer, neither in the 70s nor today. Luckily he came of age in an era when pop music was abandoning routine and compatriots such as Frank Zappa and Warren Zevon found popular appeal while still feeling comfortable exposing their classical roots. And it’s even luckier that we now live in an era when classical music has evolved and transformed, permitting a string quartet to share the stage on equal footing with a pop star.

Indeed, Northwestern’s Side by Side spring festival aimed to mix the traditional with the unusual, although New York’s ETHEL can hardly be called a traditional string quartet. In particular, they are known for their eccentric, if occasionally impractical, fashion sense (as an example, it couldn’t have been easy for cellist Dorothy Lawson to mark time in her hot pink pumps.) Plenty of string quartets know how to dress, of course, but what makes ETHEL a refreshing presence is their sense of humor. “Is that a seventies thing?” retorted violinist Tema Watstein to Rundgren, even as he berated Ralph Farris (the group’s violist) for not being funky enough. The fantastic rapport between Rundgren and ETHEL put the room at ease.

ETHEL string quartet - Ralph Farris,Tema Watstein, Kip Jones, and Dorothy Lawson  (photo credit: Stephanie Berger)

ETHEL string quartet – Ralph Farris, Tema Watstein, Kip Jones, and Dorothy Lawson (photo credit: Stephanie Berger)

But it wasn’t all about the laughs. After an introductory performance by ETHEL (including selections by Arvo Pärt, Judd Greenstein, and Lou Harrison), and a solo set by Rundgren (including a ukulele version of his Bang on the Drum All Day), the two forces combined to present string arrangements of some of Rundgren’s best-known songs. Of these, Pretending to Care was the obvious standout. It brought the first row to an early standing ovation and it had me in tears. Rundgren’s body movements were as hammy as a Japanese Kabuki actor’s, but with the backdrop of ETHEL’s tasteful playing you had nothing to fear. In fact, it wasn’t until the encore—an unapologetic cover of Jim Henson’s Mahna Mahna—that you came to recognize Todd Rundgren as your favorite Muppet. And for his great finale you’d half expect him to grab his bicolored hair and yank off his mask to reveal the sweaty, hairy hand of a performance genius.

The Side by Side festival at Northwestern ran for twelve days, from April 2 through April 13. Other unusual alliances performing included jazz vocalist Kurt Elling with Chicago Jazz Orchestra and the Spektral Quartet, the Miro Quartet with percussionist Colin Currie, Asphalt Orchestra, and classical guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad with clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera.

Sam Zelitch is a writer and a performer out of Chicago, Ill. Follow him on Twitter: @smellitch.