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Classic(al) Rock

Northwestern music group appears on 'America's Got Talent'

July 27, 2010 | by Matt Paolelli
The Gentlemen of NUCO

The Gentlemen of NUCO were finally ready for primetime.

The classically trained musicians from Northwestern University wowed the judges on the NBC television show "America's Got Talent" on June 29 with their rousing highbrow rendition of "Since U Been Gone," a rock song made popular by Kelly Clarkson.

There are no electric guitars or keyboards in their arsenal; the Gentlemen prefer violins, violas and cellos.

"Basically they're playing pop music on classical instruments, but they're doing it in a rock band way," said Robert Hasty, a senior lecturer in music performance studies and conductor of the Northwestern University Chamber Orchestra (NUCO). "They want to bring the two worlds together."

Auditioning at the show's Chicago-area talent search, the Gentlemen of NUCO's energetic performance visibly impressed celebrity judges Howie Mandel, Piers Morgan and Sharon Osbourne, who voted to send the group to the next round of the competition in Las Vegas.

The Gentlemen of NUCO's current lineup features Henry Wang (Music '10) and Hugh Palmer (Music '09) on violin, Yoshi Nakano (Music '10) on viola, Charles Asch (Music '09) on cello, Josh Fink (Music '11) on bass, and Corey Bertelsen (McCormick and Music '11) and Patrick Slevin (Music '10) on percussion.

Their journey to primetime began in the lobby of Pick-Staiger Concert Hall in the spring of 2006.

During the intermission of a performance of Mozart's opera "Così fan tutte," several members of NUCO pulled out their string instruments and delighted the crowd in the lobby with the debut of their take on Clarkson's hit song.

During their freshman year in the fall of 2005, founding members Fink, Wang, Palmer and Asch approached Hasty seeking his support for their unconventional new musical venture. Hasty provided the necessary signature to give the band recognition as a student group and strongly encouraged their musical mission - to perform popular songs in a classical music style.

The group continued their Pick-Staiger lobby performances, added new members and gained a following. During the intermission of a Russian-themed Northwestern University Symphony Orchestra concert, the group played the Beatles' "Back in the USSR" and even featured Hasty on lead vocals.

The Gentlemen of NUCO held their first official concert in 2007, performing band member Josh Fink's arrangements of the songs on Radiohead's "OK Computer" album.

"As we go through history, the line between popular music and classical music continues to be blurred, and Radiohead has a huge following among classical musicians," Hasty said. "I think it's fantastic that they're putting their energy into this and even practicing the skills of improvisation in their concerts, which is something that classical musicians don't often get to do."

Their Radiohead concerts were wildly popular on campus, Hasty said, and the group donated all the proceeds to various charitable organizations. The Gentlemen of NUCO released their Radiohead cover album on iTunes and Amazon and continued to perform in campus shows until the band members began to graduate in 2009.

"They are all world-class musicians, and they will likely have some of the top orchestral jobs available to them," he said.

The decision to audition for "America's Got Talent" was a recent development that the band members could not disclose because of their agreement with the show, Hasty said. Their exposure on national television was a wonderful opportunity for both the band and for the promotion of classical music in general, he said.

"I think they're great role models for the show's viewers," he said. "This could open up a whole new world of performing for a kid who is playing classical violin and sees what they're doing."

"They kicked me out as lead singer, but I won't hold a grudge for too long."

Topics: People