Time will tell if Quartetto Gelato is a flash in the pan, a crossover phenom as evanescent as the latest flavor from Ben & Jerry's. Right now, though, the Toronto-based foursome is enjoying plenty of airplay, earning comparisons to the Canadian Brass (for versatility) and the Kronos Quartet (for hipness). Its two CDs--Quartetto Gelato and Rustic Chivalry, both on Sleeping Giant Music--reveal an unusual knack for blending diverse idioms into subversive and at times oddly affecting sound bites. Gelato's arrangements of familiar tunes and arias--often with unusual instrumentation--often play along the border between sly parody and brilliantly original stream-of-consciousness musing. What starts out as a tango, for instance, might sneakily segue into a quasi-Beethoven quartet before morphing back into a tango. And a title like "Concerto Sopra Motivi dell'Opera la Favorita di Donizetti" probably best illuminates the quartet's madcap tendencies. Gelato can bring off this PDQ Bach-meets-Puccini because the members are assured musicians with eclectic backgrounds. Cynthia Steljes, who plays oboe and English horn, and George Meanwell, who doubles on cello and guitar, are veterans of ballet and new-music venues; Italian-born Claudio Vena, who arranges most of Gelato's selections, is an expert violist and accordionist; and the group looks to Peter De Sotto, a violinist and mandolinist versed in gypsy, bluegrass, jazz, and rock, as its vocal soloist. (De Sotto, a robust tenor, is known to deliver heart-on-the-sleeve renditions of "O Sole Mio" and "Danny Boy" that recall Pavarotti at his tear-jerking best.) The four got together four years ago for a weekend of chamber music and haven't parted musical ways since. On the program for their Ravinia debut are Mozart's Oboe Quartet in F (Steljes's calling card), a weirdly cliched Espagna Capriccioso, by Vena, and Hungarian Czardas, written by an Italian. Sure to bring down the house is the prelude and an aria from La Boheme, but it'll be Puccini according to Gelato. The quartet also performs Monday evening at Borders Books & Music on Michigan. Tuesday, 8 PM, Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 728-4642.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of the Quartetto.