Cello Quartet Shakes Things Up in Cleveland

By Sophie Benn

If you went around asking, “What is your favorite classical instrument?” many, if not most people, would pick the cello. There’s something about its low, melodious voice that just draws people in. We are the Cleveland Cello Quartet (members Anna Hurt, Carlyn Kessler, Sophie Benn, and Eva Ribchinsky), and we have made it our mission to bring the people what they want: fun and beautiful cello music, everywhere and anywhere about town!

Back in January 2015, Anna and Carlyn were at a Cleveland Cello Society concert, which featured many of the cellists from the Cleveland Orchestra. They were very inspired by the concept of a “cello choir,” and wondered if they could get a regular group like that going. Through chatting over the summer, the idea evolved into a cello quartet, which is an even more versatile (and mobile) way of spreading the cello love!

Sophie and Eva, who are longtime friends and colleagues of Anna and Carlyn, hopped on board. We were all looking for more opportunities to play chamber music and do some fun outreach projects, and cello quartet is such a wonderful and unusual ensemble that it’s perfect for that kind of work. We are also all alumni or current students of the Cleveland Institute of Music, which is where many of us met.

It’s pretty unusual to have a professional ensemble made up of just one instrument—usually groups like this just get together for a one-off event. But we’ve found that playing together on a regular basis helps us explore new facets of our instrument. We really love the idea of presenting the cello, which is usually such a strictly classical instrument, in unconventional venues and arrangements. We have some classical pieces that were originally written for cello quartet, but also have a few new arrangements of some of our favorite pieces and songs. As a group, we’re really inspired by jazz and Swing-era singers such as Ella Fitzgerald. We’ve done some arrangements of jazz standards, Gershwin medleys, and even some Django Reinhardt tunes! The cello has such a vocal quality to its sound that it’s a great platform for genre-bending arrangements of songs in many styles of music.

Education and outreach are a big part of our identity as a group. We have all gone through the Suzuki training program at CIM, and several of us are very active teachers in the greater Cleveland area. Part of the reason we formed was so that we could have a platform for more outreach, and so far that’s been an integral part of our mission. We are currently working to create some outreach shows targeted at young audiences that we can bring around to schools and community centers around town. We really want to get across to audiences how amazing our instrument is, and how fun it can be to play chamber music with friends.

Since this is a newly formed group, we are still working through the foundational elements of a chamber ensemble, such as building up our repertoire, clarifying our mission, and getting a really enthusiastic fan base started. But we’ve had a really overwhelming level of interest already—we know this is a great addition to the Cleveland music scene! This fall, we’ve played at a Groupmuse event, in a Music For Food benefit concert, a few Classical Revolution outreach gigs, as well as some other odd things here and there. We were also featured on Classical Revolution’s  “First Fridays” feature on the public radio station in town in November, which was a blast! In the winter and spring, we’ll be having a few shows at clubs around town, as well as some outreach events. Stay tuned!

As freelance musicians, we are all deeply imbedded in the music scene in Cleveland, and are really proud to call this city our home. Cleveland is flooded with graduates from CIM and Oberlin, which are both among the best conservatories in the country. So our city has this amazing population of talented classical musicians, which is a joy for us! We love how varied, collaborative, and supportive the music scene here is–the sense of community is very strong here. We are fortunate to have so many fun opportunities to perform, both in the concert hall and more unconventional settings. In a culturally rich city where all art forms are thriving, the classical music scene is always fresh, inspiring, and unique.

Sophie Benn is a freelance musician based in Cleveland, Ohio. She is a founding member of the Cleveland Cello Quartet, is one of the regional coordinators of Groupmuse Cleveland, and serves as the principal cellist of CityMusic Chamber Orchestra. She is currently pursuing a Professional Studies diploma at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Richard Weiss, and received her bachelor’s degree in both performance and music history from Rice University, where she studied with Norman Fischer.

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