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String quartet bringing classical-pop mash-ups

The members of the string quartet launching UNLV’s annual Charles Vanda Master Series on Saturday plan to catch Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me” at Planet Hollywood during their Vegas visit.

But first, they have to play a piece of Britney’s.

Spears’ “Toxic” is just one of the pop hits in the concert repertoire of Well-Strung: The Singing String Quartet.

Celine Dion is another Strip headliner whose music Well-Strung performs alongside — and sometimes entwined with — works by classical composers, from Mozart to Beethoven and beyond.

That combination of pop and classical “has been our gig from day one,” notes violist Trevor Wadleigh, who’s making his first-ever visit to Neon Nirvana in connection with the quartet’s Las Vegas debut.

“In the beginning, our presentation was more side-by-side,” with the musicians performing “a movement of a classical string quartet,” followed by a Top 40 tune, Wadleigh says in a telephone interview from New York City. (It has to be New York City, given the frequent bursts of car-horn cacophony accompanying his comments.)

Nowadays, however, “we do mash-ups” as well, layering classical melodies over the pop tunes, he adds. “It’s more integrated.”

While performing Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space,” Wadleigh and his Well-Strung colleagues — violinists Edmund Bagnell and Chris Marchant and cellist Daniel Shevlin — will “introduce a Bach partita over the chorus,” he notes. “Not only do we have the rhythm and instrumentation, but you get that bit of classical-ness.”

A Miley Cyrus song shares sonic space with Grieg, while Well-Strung augments Gotye’s Grammy-winning “Somebody That I Used to Know” with a Ravel melody.

But Spears’ “Toxic” remains “completely Britney,” with classical additions. “It has not been tainted,” Wadleigh jokes.

Combining two very different musical styles sounds tough enough, but Well-Strung ups the difficulty factor by singing the pop lyrics while playing string instruments.

Wadleigh likens the process to “rubbing your head and patting your belly at the same time.”

Sure, plenty of singers accompany themselves on guitar or piano, but those instruments have frets and keys, respectively, to guide their pitch.

In those cases, “you don’t have to think” while playing, Wadleigh says.

But playing a violin, a viola or cello means “a millimeter of adjustment of the finger” can switch the pitch, he says. “It’s like speaking two conversations.”

Or, perhaps, speaking one and singing another.

Although Wadleigh has accompanied singers “in school and orchestra pits and opera pits,” Well-Strung represents “the first time I’ve been paid to sing. It’s been super-fun.”

It’s also been a big change from the “New York classical scene” he belonged to before joining the quartet.

Violinist Marchant and producer Mark Cortale founded Well-Strung almost four years ago, but Marchant’s “light bulb moment” came two summers before the group got together, according to Wadleigh.

That moment occurred in Provincetown, Mass., on Cape Cod, in the summer of 2010, when Marchant was playing violin on the street to make extra money.

“Whenever I finished playing Bach or Handel on the street in Provincetown, I would put in my headphones and listen to Top 40 on my iPod,” Marchant recalled in a New York magazine interview. “People would stop me on the street and say, ‘Oh, you’re the violinist! What are you listening to?’ And I would be like, ‘I’m listening to Britney Spears.'”

In Wadleigh’s view, “people’s idea of what classical musicians are like is very skewed.”

Which is something the members of Well-Strung counter every time they mix Mozart with Kelly Clarkson or perform a medley from Disney’s animated smash “Frozen.”

After all, “a lot of people don’t get the chance to listen to classical music,” Wadleigh says. “We wanted to offer both side by side.”

Besides, “it’s really important to seek out music, wherever it comes from,” he adds, “if you like it and enjoy it and it speaks to you.”

That’s Well-Strung’s approach and, so far, he says, the response has been “overwhelming, incredibly positive” — even from his classically trained peers.

“I was curious to see how they would take it,” he admits, but performers from top orchestras — including those in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco — “just sing our praises.”

Maybe they’re Britney fans, too.

“If the music speaks to us,” Wadleigh says, “we’re not afraid to do it.”

For more stories from Carol Cling go to reviewjournal.com. Contact her at ccling@reviewjournal.com and follow @CarolSCling on Twitter.

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