Mathematically speaking, Quartetto Gelato is but a foursome. Yet—and quite apart from any recording-studio trickery—that’s hardly the impression conveyed by the sumptuous, idiosyncratic blends it concocts out of assorted combos of oboe, English horn, violin, viola, cello, mandolin, guitar, accordion, and voice.

Peter De Sotto, Cynthia Steljes, Claudio Vena, and George Meanwell whisk back and forth between their respective instruments, often within a single piece, with a buoyant versatility appropriate to their eccentrically free-ranging repertoire. The Toronto-based group easily swings through two centuries’ worth of musical styles, paying equal homage to the formal classical oboe quartet, Italian tangos, Neapolitan folk songs, specially arranged operatic arias, and fiddling-’round-the-campfire Gypsy csárdás. The group’s approach is aptly encoded in its quirky name, which combines serious musical purpose with self-parodying whimsy to offer a welcome antidote to the often-stuffy attitudes of the classical concert hall.

“One of the most frustrating statements someone can make about a piece of music is, ‘I’m not qualified to judge whether I like it,’” observes violinist De Sotto, who doubles as the group’s tenor vocalist. “If you feel it, if it touches you, it’s real,” he adds. De Sotto stresses that it’s a mistake to regard classical music in particular as “an exercise in academia that’s there to please the professors. It’s there to please all people. The first thing to realize is that it’s music to the heart.”

That sense of immediacy comes naturally to De Sotto, who began his career as a self-taught violinist pursuing rock, jazz, and bluegrass throughout a period of musical wanderlust, only belatedly taking up the formal study that resulted in a 10-year stint with the Toronto Symphony. His earlier background gave De Sotto an unusual perspective on classical musicmaking. “I learned a type of intimacy that isn’t taught in the conservatory. From playing around tables and restaurants I gauged how to read a particular audience, how to put together a program that works. Also, I learned a lot of colors that I wouldn’t have otherwise in classical music, from that need to get an immediate response from people.”

Eventually, De Sotto grew tired of “sharing the stage with 100 other egos” and wanted to find an artistic outlet that would also incorporate the tenor voice he had begun cultivating in his late 20s. With a serendipitous touch typical of the performing arts, the group—whose three other members had been spending time in the pit orchestras for various productions—came together for what was to be a one-time weekend jam. They quickly discovered a remarkable affinity of tastes that was enhanced by violist/accordionist Vena’s colorful arrangements of bel canto and verismo operatic scenes to balance out the multiple talents of each performer. Soon Gelato’s musical identity began to, well, gel.

For all the novelty of these arrangements, De Sotto acknowledges that the group harks back to an Old World sound and approach to making music. “We go after a lush, romantic sound. It’s got to feel like a lavish meal, extravagant, with a strong sense of phrasing that may not always be the cleanest. It’s a richness you hear in Kreisler, or in the electricity Heifetz brought to his vibrato,” he says. Objecting to the term “crossover” for their choice of repertory as implying a belittling of the music, De Sotto adds that “rearranging a piece doesn’t necessarily mean you’re turning it into some kind of light salon music. Why can’t you play an instrumental version of Schubert lieder? In the past, musicians used to bring out their own arrangements all the time; it was the highlight of the recital.

“Instead of a ‘crisis,’ I look at what’s happening in classical music today as a revolution,” De Sotto asserts. That is, there’s a growing realization that “things have been done over and over, that a lot of great repertoire has been neglected.”

Meanwhile, Gelato’s instrumental flexibility has helped define a unique niche for the group. In De Sotto’s case, his singing, which emulates the heart-on-the-sleeve appeal of such tenors as Wunderlich, Björling, and “the real Pavarotti—the one before the Three Tenors phase,” has enriched his violin playing. “It’s helped me develop a sense of line, of how to tailor a great phrase through knowing where to save and spend my breath.”

In addition to its extensive touring schedule, Gelato has kept busy with several recording projects, including last fall’s Rustic Chivalry and the soundtrack to the Norman Jewison film Only You, which represents another direction the group would like to continue pursuing. But clearly the road life and the immediate give-and-take of a live audience possess a continuing allure for the ensemble, providing occasions to constantly readjust its earthy lyricism. As if recalling the group’s early days performing in cafes and restaurants, De Sotto again resorts to food metaphors in describing a typical Gelato concert: “It’s like laying out a really good meal. You start with a lighter antipasto as you become acquainted with the audience, then you bring in your soups and the main course. After that, you taper off to dessert and bring out liqueurs at the end where everyone lets loose.”CP

Quartetto Gelato performs Feb. 9 at 2 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. (202) 833-9800.

More from WCP