There are multiple reasons why you should go hear Quatuor Ebène next week at Tanglewood. This young French string quartet has, in very short order, become one of the most dynamic and talented ensembles of its kind. The quartet’s recording of the Debussy and Ravel quartets (from 2008) opened up new sonic vistas in this well-recorded repertoire. Less radical but equally fulfilling is the group’s more recent take on Mozart’s D minor Quartet (K. 421), which is on the Tanglewood program. So is Tchaikovsky’s First String Quartet, about which these musicians are likely to have something novel to say.
But perhaps the best reason is that the second half of the program will be given over to the quartet’s arrangements of pop and jazz — what its members call “this hidden, uncertain, rather risky, but thrilling side of our work.” (The word “Ebène,” French for “ebony,” was chosen in part to pay homage to the African-American jazz tradition.) Those words come from the booklet for “Fiction: Live at the Folies Bergère,” a DVD from last fall that captures the Ebène playing standards, jazz tunes, and a few pop songs at the storied Paris music hall. It’s a follow-up to the CD “Fiction,” the group’s first foray into this material.
This sounds like the kind of crossover affair that’s mediocre at best, cringe-inducing at worst. But the Ebène is extremely good at it, and its versions of nonclassical material are almost invariably exciting and ear-opening. Much of that has to do with greater fluidity of musical boundaries. Far more of today’s classical musicians have listened extensively to or played other genres of music than in the past, and they have also thought about how to work those styles and techniques into the previously settled model of what a classical ensemble does.
This is just what happened with the Ebène members. In a 2011 interview with the writer Anastasia Tsioulcas for the Ariama website, violinist Gabriel Le Magadure said that before joining the quartet, he had played bass and drums, cellist Raphaël Merlin was a jazz pianist, violinist Pierre Colombet played in a rock band, and violist Mathieu Herzog was in a funk and soul band.
“At the end of our rehearsals,” Le Magadure said, “we would just relax by playing other things — standards, pop tunes, whatever. And we realized that all that was part of what we wanted to do as a quartet. Everything is mixed these days anyway, right? I mean, think of Radiohead, Muse, Gotan Project, Prince, Sting — none of those artists belong to just one genre.”
Their backgrounds gave the quartet members two skills essential to making this kind of project successful: improvisation and arrangement. The live DVD offers the best sampler of their abilities. It opens with Merlin alone, picking out fragments on the cello that eventually coalesce into the famous bass line of Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” to which Colombet contributes a dazzling violin solo. Le Magadure gets his spotlight in Don Grolnick’s “Nothing Personal,” where he unwinds far-ranging, often dissonant lines over Merlin’s hypnotic bass ostinato. The quartet also has great rhythmic chops, and it’s helped by the gentle, propulsive swing of drummer Richard Héry on many of the tracks.
A Miles Davis medley of “All Blues” and “So What” shows how comfortable these musicians are ranging far from the basics of the original tunes. (That’s appropriate, considering how Davis used to bend standards to his own purposes.) “Calling You,” from the movie “Bagdad Cafe,” begins with a long percussion solo by Héry, and the quartet weaves away from and back to the structure of the song, sounding both free and instinctively tight. As for the surf classic “Misirlou,” made famous by the “Pulp Fiction” soundtrack, that’s just pure speed and fun.
The Ebène also accompanies two singers on the DVD: Stacey Kent on Jobim’s “Corcovado” and Natalie Dessay on “Over the Rainbow.” But the greatest vocal success is also the most unlikely: violist Herzog singing Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” with poignant conviction. Any group that can sound as convincing as this as in Ravel and Mozart is doing something very right.
The 99 percent, in song
Inspired by the Occupy movement, Christopher Smith, artistic director of Boston Metro Opera, has created “The 99,” which opens Friday at Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain. In an e-mail, Smith described the new work as “more of a music drama than an opera,” mixing familiar tunes with original music by Smith, spoken dialogue, and electronics.
Smith conceived the show “as a response to the economic and political divide that has engulfed this country,” he wrote, adding that he wanted to “put a human face to social, political, and financial issues while also using a bit of surrealism. . . . I think anyone who comes will leave feeling motivated to go out and change the world, one person at a time.”
Tanglewood gala on PBS
The PBS program “Great Performances” will broadcast Tanglewood’s 75th anniversary gala concert on Friday. The concert was taped on July 14 and included performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Pops, and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra and soloists Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Peter Serkin, among others. The concert will air at 9 p.m. on WGBH Channel 2.