International String Trio members Ben Powell (left), Slava Tolstoy and Ippei Ichimaru warm up while conducting a sound check before their performance at the South Lincoln Training and Event Center on Saturday, March 2.
GAZETTE PHOTO/Jennifer Haessig
KEMMERER — They may be from, and have been, all over the world, but these three gentlemen have never been to Wyoming before.
“I’d love to come here in the summertime,” said Ben Powell, the trio’s violinist, already imagining — as we all already do — how beautiful the area is during the more humane months of the year.
“Why doesn’t anything grow here?” he asked shortly thereafter. After a very brief, and poor, explanation from the Gazette that included something about soil development, the conversation drifted to snow. All three men were surprised to hear that the current landscape was actually somewhat low on snow at the moment.
In between bites of food, they talked a little about their current tour and some of the work they do along the way.
“Honestly, this is new for us,” said Powell of the extent of the current tour. “This is our first tour to this part of the country. We’ve done some smaller touring in the northeast and different formations of the band have been down to the Carolinas to do various different things, but for something this extensive — this is new for us. We’re loving it.”
As they travel, the three also function as a mobile musical outreach center, working with students. Interestingly, the subject comes up in response to a question about differences between audiences east and west of the Mississippi River.
“[You] have really good kids,” said Ippei Ichimaru, primarily the trio’s bass player but also very adept with a ukulele, of audiences out west.
“We’ve been doing a lot of educational work,” explained Powell. “Morning workshop, evening concert. So we’ve been going into a lot of the schools. We do odds and ends educational work in the northeast, and I suppose we’ve just found the kids out this way slightly more…well-mannered.”
“In many ways, more appreciative and open — focused,” said Slava Tolstoy, the group’s guitarist and musical director. “It’s more like it’s a special thing for them — that they came and what we shared with them. It is a very nice response. With kids, you never know.”
The conversation shifts to the music they’ll be playing that night.
“It’s a long process,” said Tolstoy of determining a set list. “And we test lots of songs in lots of different performance situations. We only select for these kinds of shows the very best, the cream of the crop.”
As he further explained, the set lists they use today are the product of years of development, not something they throw together spontaneously or without thought. It’s about the energy of the performance and holding the audience’s interest. And he also pointed out the importance of their own opinions in the process — they also have to like the material they choose.
All that planning and structure, however, requires enough flexibility that if their finely honed set starts going south, they can switch things up.
“Knowing how to monitor the energy — and the transfer of energy — in a concert is kind of half the battle, in some ways, really understanding how to transport your audience through your own set list,” Powell explained. “And changing it up for us is a good thing, too, because if you do the same set all the time, you can get in a rut a little bit, creatively.”
“We’re trying to draw both from having a structure, and then be free on top of that structure,” said Tolstoy.
“Freedom within structure,” Powell clarified. Ichimaru nods his head.
Tolstoy talks about taking the audience on a journey, referring to elements like color and speed.
“We’re really trying to work with it, to make it dynamic,” he said.
The conversation shifts from arranging the set list to arranging the pieces within it. Because Tolstoy is the group’s musical director and a professional producer, he arranges much of the trio’s music.
“But then again, everybody contributes. That’s the beauty of having these amazing players with you, not just hired guns who don’t care about anything. This is a band, this is a group,” he said.
“It’s a collaboration,” agrees Powell.
“Everybody’s vision and effort and input is valuable in this group,” Tolstoy added.
As they talk, the men are very relaxed. And gracious, given the fact that the dinner hour is quickly being consumed by the interview.
But that’s just how their sound check had gone, too — relaxed and friendly, easy and gracious. And the “freedom within structure” concept that they had talked about earlier was quite evident in the rhythm of the pre-dinner sound check that ended much too soon.