Three musical brothers along with their cousin from London, England, pioneered a string quartet with a unique live number in the early 2000s: a rendition of Ravel’s “Boléro,” and the four of them played on just one cello. The clever musical cover has since been wowing audiences the world over, even to this day.
Six-string electric violin player Ralph Broadbent started Stringfever in 2004 with his older brother, bandleader and lead violinist Giles, his cousin, viola player Graham, and his younger brother, five-string electric cello player Neal, who can also beatbox.
Hailing from a musical family, the siblings were drawn to playing string instruments from a young age.
Ralph told The Epoch Times: “I guess we always thought we would follow in our uncles’ footsteps and maybe play in a symphony orchestra.”
“In our teenage years, we started busking on the street,” he said. “We borrowed my parents’ camper van and in the summer we used to go off for three or four weeks, driving around different European countries.”
Knowing they all wanted a career in music, they followed a rather traditional route and attended London’s Royal Academy and Royal College of Music.
After graduating, Ralph and his older brother played in West End theater shows. When the run of “My Fair Lady” came to a close in 2003, the quartet bought electric instruments and began to perform on the street for the summer months. There, the group met an agent.
“This agent said, ‘If you can put together a show, I can get you lots of work.’ So we thought, ‘This is perfect timing!'” Ralph said. “That gave us a real focus to try and be funny with the music and try [to] be entertaining.
“I’d always wanted to try and do musical comedy but I hadn’t quite found the right time or the right outlet.”
They had a few weeks to prepare and soon came up with a few ideas.
During this period, Ralph recalled seeing a group of six or eight musicians playing one double bass on TV as a child and was inspired to try something similar on a cello with his brothers and cousin. They then began to discuss which piece to play and Ralph suggested Mission Impossible.
“I think it was Graham who suggested, ‘Why don’t we play ‘Boléro,’ because it has a simple, repetitive rhythm?'” said Ralph, who further added that it was well known internationally too.
All of them then began to think of ways to play it.
“Graham, again, said, ‘Well why don’t I play the rhythm but on the alternative side of the bridge. … I’ll have to sit down to do that, on the floor.’ That was quite funny, seeing this big bloke have to sit down!” Ralph said.
The quartet finally came up with an arrangement for “Boléro” on a five-string cello with Graham on the floor keeping rhythm, Ralph playing the bass part pizzicato, and Giles and Neal playing harmonic melodies with bows at the same time.
“It took quite a lot of practice to get it,” Ralph said. “My youngest brother, who was only 18 at the time, he thought we were mad. He would complain about our personal hygiene because we were so close. He would say, ‘Have you guys had a shower today?’ ‘Why is your finger in my face?'”
Ralph said it took them about 10 days to perfect and give their first performance. However, he insisted that the more they played it, the easier it got.
To add an extra hit of comedy to their live performance, the quartet introduced a funny ending, borrowing an idea from Graham’s father, Steven, who used to enlist an audience member to stand by in a tailcoat and play the very last note of a song to rousing applause.
Since then, Stringfever has enlisted a number of celebrities for this role, even inviting former UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, to come up and play the final note.
Two years after their first show, a friend of the quartet uploaded a video of “Boléro” to YouTube. It got over a million hits. The quartet has since released another rendition, fine-tuned over the years for maximum comedic impact.
When Stringfever began, Ralph, Giles, Graham, and Neal were all living in South London. They have since married and moved further outside the city, but remain tied to their musical roots.
Today, Stringfever has toured their 90-minute concert in New York and across the United States, at the Beijing Music Festival, across China, Brazil, Mexico, India, and twelve different European countries. And, its “Boléro” always gets a positive reaction.
Ralph said: “[W]hen you see it live, I think people really are quite shocked and amazed because it takes a bit of time just to work out who’s sitting where and who’s playing what. I think it really engages the audience.
“I think the main message our whole show, and ‘Boléro,’ typifies is really to bring entertainment into classical music. … Sometimes people think when you have fun and you’re entertaining, you maybe compromise the musical quality, but it’s to make classical music accessible for everyone.”
The quartet is planning to return to the United States in 2024.
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