As a rule, The Tonight Show isn't known as a key gig for a string quartet.
For actors, sure. And rock stars, athletes, authors, politicians, feisty nonagenarians, even cute, fuzzy animals that have committed embarrassing acts upon the host.
The last time a bona fide string quartet played on The Tonight Show was, well ... never.
That will change on Tuesday, when NBC makes an exception for England's hot, young Brodsky Quartet, whose members were playing the music of Bartok before their voices changed.
The group has built its reputation by playing and recording all 15 of the immensely challenging quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich, yet can turn as easily to music spanning Haydn to Frank Bridge when the mood strikes.
So should it matter to chamber-music aficionados that none of that, at least directly, brought the Brodskys to the attention of The Tonight Show talent buyers? That they're on largely because they'll have a rock-star pal in tow — fellow Brit Elvis Costello?
Not really, given that Costello and the Brodskys will be given a forum of several million viewers when they perform excerpts from their collaborative project entitled The Juliet Letters.
Subtitled "a song sequence for string quartet and voice," the album defies easy categorization.
Rock 'n' roll gone legit? Chamber music with an attitude?
Whatever it might be labeled, it has opened new vistas for Costello and for the London-based Brodskys.
"Yes, I would say it has made us a little more accessible," Brodsky cellist Jacqueline Thomas said in a recent phone interview from Amsterdam, on the European leg of the Juliet Letters tour.
The brief, four-city U.S. portion begins tonight at UCLA's Royce Hall, and concludes Thursday in New York City. The Brodskys, who made their U.S. debut in 1988 at the UK/LA Festival, then will launch their own one-week American tour beginning Saturday in Costa Mesa and concluding March 27 in Sheffield, Mass.
"I should think that being asked to do The Tonight Show isn't something we would normally get," said Thomas, who is joined in the quartet by violinists Michael Thomas (her brother) and Ian Belton and violist Paul Cassidy.
With the first week of the European tour behind them, Thomas said: "Audiences from both (pop and classical) sides are coming to the concerts. ... We feel it is opening doors for us. We've already been invited to some of the major U.S. (classical) festivals to repeat The Juliet Letters. And normally," she said with a chuckle, "they probably wouldn't invite Elvis."
Negotiations for such festival appearances, in Europe as well as in the United States, are in the very early stages, Thomas said. Nonetheless, "It is very exciting."
The same has been said of The Juliet Letters, which is a true musical union rather than a freakish hybrid.
In the album's notes, Costello said all five musicians "were anxious to avoid that junkyard name 'crossover.' This is no more my stab at 'classical music' than it is the Brodsky Quartet's first rock and roll album."
Brodsky members get credit as writers, or as co-writers with Costello, on 14 of the album's 20 songs. Each is devised as a letter of some stripe: love letters, Dear John (or Jane) missives, suicide notes, even a chain letter.
(The inspiration for the project was a newspaper clipping they found about an Italian academic who took it upon himself to answer an ongoing string of letters addressed to "Juliet Capulet." Only a few of the album's songs, however, make direct reference to Romeo or Juliet, or allude to the star-cross'd lovers theme.)
While a strong sense of melody gives pop audiences easy access, the Brodskys tap their classical roots by extending, expanding and amplifying melodic themes. As a result, they create a wider range of emotions and tonal colors than commonly found in pop.
"Dead Letter," an instrumental by Cassidy, evokes a Brahmsian reverie. The sprightly "I Almost Had a Weakness" has an angular, Stravinksy-like introduction, but breaks into a Gypsy-jazz middle section that might have come from Stephane Grappelli.
"Jacksons, Monk and Rowe" reveals a melodic immediacy worthy of the Beatles, with whom Costello has always shared a musical kinship. Yet the music for "Jacksons" is credited solely to Michael Thomas.
"Michael has always done a bit of composition, but the others hadn't," Jacqueline Thomas said. "I hadn't composed since I was 8. ... In working together, the process was much more interesting in a way" than interpreting the existing works of other composers.
"We're not only interpreting the notes of what we're playing, but we can also change the notes, which is quite a nice freedom in a way," she said. "If something's really not working, we change it.
"Some of the compositional methods were fascinating, really. People would arrive with a fragment of an idea, and four hours later it had become something close to a song. Other times, someone would come in with an almost-complete song, but maybe without much middle texture. We would then insert a middle part — there were lots of different ways the (creative process) came out."
That, Thomas said, was a relief.
"At first, I was worried that the form would be rather limiting. I was afraid there wouldn't be such a nice diversity of textures, particularly in a song like 'Who Do You Think You Are?,' where we imitated the sound of an accordion, to give it a cafe feel. With a string quartet, that's not a sound you'd immediately think of. Or the World War II sirens we did" in "I Thought I'd Write to Juliet."
"What we didn't want to get into was a pop-song formation that repeats a lot of lyrics and goes over the same ground again and again. There are maybe two songs where the catch line is repeated. ... The idea was to try to make it more of a classical form. And the song form, within classical music, has been done successfully."
But only rarely has it been done — successfully or otherwise — for this combination of singer and string quartet.
"There is a Schoenberg piece" — the Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp for soprano and strings — "(but) that's all we've ever done. There are very few pieces for that combination — maybe only two or three. It's not only neglected, but almost unique."
In at least one respect, the Brodskys are unique: Their Shostakovich cycle for Teldec is the first digital recording of all 15 quartets. Those works, along with Bartok's six, are generally considered the most important 20th-Century contributions to the quartet repertory.
The Brodskys' 1989 live performance of the Shostakovich cycle at Queen Elizabeth Hall "has been as gripping and intense in its range as a great Russian novel," wrote a critic for the Guardian of London. "That such young performers could convey such depth of emotion in the music of old age was amazing."
In the U.S., Stereo Review said their recording of Quartets Nos. 7-9 "displays not only the intelligence and virtuosity you'd expect from four bright young string players, but also the most distinctive tonal sheen since the postwar Quartetto Italiano, along with a high energy level that's exciting in itself."
So strongly have the Brodskys been associated with Shostakovich that their interpretations of the quartets of Beethoven, Elgar, Delius, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann and myriad others have sometimes been overshadowed. The Costa Mesa program will include Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8, Schumann's Quartet No. 3 and Beethoven's Quartet No. 6.
"We feel very much suited to Shostakovich," Thomas said, without a trace of self-congratulation. "Maybe because we're Northerners and we can identify with the desolation" that often characterizes Shostakovich's music.
Thomas, by the way, was all of 11 when she and her brother, growing up in the North Sea port city of Middlesborough, about 40 miles north of York, started a sort of garage string quartet with neighborhood chums Belton and violist Alexander Robertson. The only personnel change came in 1982 when Cassidy replaced Robertson, who had decided to give up music, Thomas said.
"We have been playing Shostakovich since we began playing together 21 years ago," said Thomas. "He became a big part of our lives. Even as kids we used to sit down and listen to what were, at the time, quite hard-to-come-by recordings of some of those pieces.
"We couldn't always get the sheet music, so we had to listen real closely and write down the parts on manuscript. I'm not sure now how close we got to the right notes, but we were very keen on his music. So when we got the opportunity to record them all, we already knew about half of them.
"We were very close-knit. We were playing every evening, every weekend," she said.
They differed from their aspiring rock-star peers only in their choice of instruments. "Oh yes, we were thinking we were going to be the next big deal," she said.
And what does an amateur string quartet from Middlesborough do to become the next big thing?
"We used to play wine and cheese parties," Thomas said. The quartets of Bartok and Shostakovich being not the most conducive to a party atmosphere, they literally made other arrangements.
"We made lots of arrangements of Beatles songs, including 'Eleanor Rigby'" which she singled out since it is often cited as the first rock record to use a string quartet.
"We would play all our favorite things," many of which, she said, turned up on the foursome's latest album, "Brodsky Unlimited," a collection of assorted short works they use as encores.
Because they started so young, the Brodskys have a considerable leg up in experience over other quartets of their generation.
For instance, Thomas said, they have plans to record the 16 quartets that constitute the formidable Beethoven cycle.
But not until they're ready.
"The Beethoven cycle we'll do ... maybe in another 20 or 30 years," she said nonchalantly.
One aspect of their willingness to break classical tradition for which they've taken some hits — mostly gentle jibes — is their association with Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake, whose striking variations on the tuxedo are modeled by the Brodskys on the covers of their albums.
They have credited Miyake on album jackets and even provided the music for one of his fashion shows, a relationship that hasn't gone unnoticed. It's prompted some critics to lump them in with such fashion-conscious, classical-world upstarts as violinist Nigel Kennedy and the Kronos Quartet.
"There's no reason you can't perform Mozart in modern designer suits. I think possibly it was a shame to mention (wardrobe credit) in the record sleeve," Thomas said. With a laugh, she added: "We don't put that in any more."
They haven't, however, shut the door on further cross-disciplinary collaborations.
"In fact, we have recently become involved with somebody who wants to put on concerts and art exhibitions at the same time," Thomas said.
In all cases, she added, these associations have "just happened. ... It's not because we're looking for things that make our lives more interesting. They've happened because we have not been closed to them.
"Some classical musicians are worried about doing anything different because they don't know what people will think. For some reason, people think classical musicians should stay in one niche. But so far," Thomas said, "it hasn't taken away from our concert or recording careers.
"There's no reason we shouldn't continue."