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“I Never Knew Violins Could Sound Like That!” Femmes of Rock LIVE! at UCPAC

By Spotlight Central. Photos by Love Imagery

Femmes of Rock is a rock concert with attitude that completely energizes its audiences!

Led by violinist and arranger, Nina DiGregorio, it’s just one of several shows presented by Bella Electric Strings, a group of approximately 30 talented musicians based in several US cities who tour as electronic string quartets in a variety of different productions.

As individual performers, the musicians of Bella Electric Strings have shared the stage with some of the biggest names in the music business including Beyonce, Rod Stewart, Stevie Wonder, Andrea Bocelli, Michael McDonald, Earth Wind & Fire, and many more.

Like theater’s Blue Man Group and Irish dance’s Lord of the Dance, Bella Electric Strings has multiple casts who perform in multiple cities, all under the direction of founder Nina DiGregorio.

Bella Electric Strings currently offers several different shows, all developed by Ms. DiGregorio — a disco show entitled Bella Bottoms, a holiday show called Jingle Bellas, and a high-energy rock show named Femmes of Rock, which recently took the stage on July 29, 2017 at the Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, NJ.

DiGregorio, originally from Lewiston, NY, created her show, Femmes of Rock, to feature an unusual string quartet in which “everyone plays a five-string electric violin.”

According to DiGregorio, working with Bella Electric Strings and creating shows like Femmes of Rock has helped her to live out her childhood dreams.

“When I was little,” explains DiGregorio, “I loved the Beach Boys, and I was also a fan of the TV show, Full House. On one episode of Full House, the Beach Boys performed and even called up the girls to sing with them on ‘Barbara Ann.’”

“Since that time, I’d always dreamed of getting an opportunity to do just that, and after I became a professional musician,” she continues, “my dream actually came true when I met Brian Wilson and got called up to sing with him!”

In addition to performing live on stage, developing shows, and writing original musical arrangements of rock tunes for stringed instruments, DiGregorio also loves to share her knowledge of music with the next generation of musicians.

As such, before today’s performance at UCPAC, DiGregorio and the rest of the violinists from Femmes of Rock presented a clinic for young string players from Rahway, a town where the local school district’s exemplary string program is proudly embraced by the community.

“We taught a group of kids of all ages — from elementary school age on up — to play ‘Smooth Criminal’ by Michael Jackson,” reveals DiGregorio, “and it was really nice to see how interested the kids were.”

Joining DiGregorio — both for the clinic and as members of the cast of Femmes of Rock at UCPAC in Rahway — are violinists Christina Rose, Marlo Zemartis, and Chandra Meibalane.

Christina Rose, from Las Vegas, started playing classical violin in elementary school at the age of nine.

“I loved it because I chose it,” acknowledges Rose.

Playing only classical music at first, Rose started as a substitute string performer with Bella Electric Strings a decade ago while still a high school student.

Going on to earn her degree in classical music performance from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Rose has learned to rock with the best of them.

“When I play with Femmes of Rock, it’s the best feeling in the world!” she exclaims, noting, “I’ve really grown playing with this group.”

Marlo Zemartis, also from Las Vegas, is a multi-talented instrumentalist who, in addition to being a violinist, also plays viola, cello, bass, and guitar.

Classically trained, Zemartis began piano lessons at the age of eleven and started learning how to play the violin when she was in the eighth grade.

Another graduate of University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Zemartis holds a degree in musical performance and composition so, these days, in addition to the work she does as a live performer, Zemartis also composes music for orchestras and scores documentaries.

“I really love to create,” Zemartis admits, before acknowledging that this evening’s concert at UCPAC marks her first time performing as a cast member of Femmes of Rock, making her “the only red head they’ve ever had in the group!”

Chandra Meibalane, from Evansville, Indiana, started playing violin when she was only three years old. Trained in the Suzuki method — string instruction geared to very young students in which learning music by ear is emphasized over reading written musical notation — Meibalane reveals, “I just loved it,” before adding, “I also loved it when I went to my first summer institute when I was five. It was then I told my mom that I wanted to practice every single day!”

Moving on to piano lessons at the age of five, Meibalane ultimately graduated from Butler University in Indianapolis with a dual major in music and chemistry.

Although until just a few short years ago, Meibalane played strictly classical music, she currently rocks out nightly with Femmes of Rock exclaiming, “It was crazy for me to have to learn how to make a ‘dirty sound’ on the violin! I was not familiar with a lot of hard rock music, so I had to start by listening to various bands on YouTube and familiarizing myself with their songs before I could even pick up my violin and learn how to play them.”

Supporting the four electric violinists in the Femmes of Rock show is drummer Michael Licata, who just happens to be married to Bella Electric Strings founder, Nina DiGregorio.

“Nina is one 5-foot 2-inch spitfire!” exclaims Licata.

As a musician, Licata has played with the likes of The Beatles’ Ringo Starr and even appears in Ricky Martin’s music video of his 1999 #1 hit, “Livin’ La Vida Loca.”

Going on to become a manager of bands like Blues Traveler, Licata discloses, “I hadn’t performed as a musician in ten years until Nina pulled me out of retirement,” before revealing with a smile, “I’ve got the hot girl now, so I’m more focused than ever on my playing. I’m challenged by the music and I’m playing it better than ever.”

A veteran of many concerts here in the Garden State, Licata notes, “I love the passion that people in New Jersey have for hard rock. They’re always ready for a party. There’s just something in the water here — they love their rock, and why not? They’ve got Bruce and Bon Jovi!”

Rounding out the Femmes of Rock cast is bassist Michael Kelley, a musician from Pennsylvania who spent nine years working in his self-described “backyard” with the well-known New Jersey group, The Grip Weeds.

As rock music plays through the sound system inside the historic Union County Performing Arts Center auditorium, the audience comprised of music fans of all ages excitedly waits for tonight’s Femmes of Rock show to begin.

The lights dim, and bassist Michael Kelley and drummer Michael Licata take their places on stage.

Seated behind his plexiglass partition, Licata carefully tests his bass drum and adjusts his headset while Kelley tunes his electric bass — both cueing this audience in on the fact that what they are about to experience tonight is not your typical string quartet performance!

Members of the audience cheer as Nina DiGregorio makes her way onto the stage playing Jimi Hendrix’s famous Woodstock version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” on her five-string electric violin.

Ringing out over the audience like a swirling electric guitar, DiGregorio bends the sound of her instrument, distorting it via the use of her considerable rock chops, in addition to altering it with various electronic instrument effects pedals most often associated with screaming electric guitars.

As the screen behind them flashes with color, the other Femmes of Rock violinists — Marlo Zemartis, Christina Rose, and Chandra Meibalane — join DiGregorio on stage.

Opening with a smoldering arrangement of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” the Femmes of Rock violinists electrify the audience, their movements and bows matching one another in time.

Following their dynamic rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” — featuring wild solos by both Zemartis and DiGregorio — Nina welcomes the crowd to UCPAC exclaiming, “We’re happy to be here in Rahway!”

Going on to introduce the group’s latest single, the Femmes musicians perform Nina’s sweeping arrangement of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Kelley’s bass and Licata’s drums support the orchestral rock sound emanating from Zemartis’, Rose’s, DiGregorio’s and Meibalane’s electric violins.

Thrusting their bows into the air, the dazzling quartet of string players quickly entices the entire audience to clap along!

Moving on to a powerful medley of AC/DC tunes, the Femmes of Rock string quartet trades solos as they masterfully play their violins. Bows saw at a rapid pace, and the AC/DC band logo on the screen behind them steams up before exploding — adding to the pure excitement of the music!

In one of several highlight performances of the evening, the cast of Femmes of Rock provides their unique take on Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Beginning with four-part vocal harmonies as they sing the song’s famous introduction, the female foursome soon switches over to a more traditional violin sound on their electric instruments in order to continue the song’s iconic melody.

Ultimately morphing into a wild rock extravaganza, the UCPAC audience is amazed as they watch these talented young women recreate this rock masterpiece right before their very eyes.

Soon, the angry sound of hard rock permeates the auditorium as the Femmes perform a medley of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” The pulsating sound — in addition to the ever-changing shapes and colors on the screen behind them — brings the cheering crowd to its feet!

Following an explosive Rush medley — the first time the cast has ever played it in a live concert setting — the Femmes move on to a medley of songs by The Who. Featuring choreographed moves by the women, their hair flies as they bend forward playing their instruments, completely in sync with one another and with the rhythm section solidly backing them up.

Another highlight of the Femmes of Rock show is the group’s Guitar Hits medley which features such memorable guitar tunes as Jimi Hendrix’ “Purple Haze,” The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” and Peter Frampton’s “Do You Feel Like We Do” — a number on which DiGregorio sings into a tube connected to a “talk box” electronic effect, creating a stunningly unique violin sound much to the audience’s delight.

After a standing ovation, the group concludes with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” a number in which all four violinists descend from the stage and make their way deep into the UCPAC auditorium. Kneeling in a circle on the floor in the middle of an aisle, they enthrall the audience, before returning to the stage as the jacked-up crowd once again rises to its feet!

After a series of well-deserved bows, out in the UCPAC lobby, we take a moment to reconnect with drummer Michael Licata who exclaims, “Tonight’s crowd was electric! Everyone was energetic and happy. It was a real Jersey rock crowd.”

We also meet up with the mayor of Rahway, NJ, Samson Steinman, a proponent of the Rahway School District’s string music program. Calling tonight’s performance, “phenomenal,” Steinman notes, “marrying violins with rock music is a very interesting concept, and one which went over very well with the crowd!”

In addition, we chat with several young people in attendance at tonight’s Femmes of Rock show.

Whereas Bryant, 8, calls the performance, “good,” Sofia, 8 — who has been playing the violin for a year now — exclaims, “This show was awesome! My favorite part was AC/DC. It was great!”

Likewise, Gabriel, 9 — a third-year cello student — says, “It was amazing — I’d never seen an electric violin before. AC/DC was my favorite!” and Jackson, 9, agrees, stating, “This show was amazing. I’ve been a violinist for two years and I never saw violins played like this. It was such a great experience!”

Moreover, Kristine, the adult who accompanied these local children to the Femmes of Rock performance adds, “It was fantastic to see how all the kids were inspired by these different genres of music.”

We also get a chance to talk with another youngster, Michaela, from Wyndmoor, PA, a piano and saxophone player, who says, “It was really, really, really, really, really, really, REALLY good! I especially liked when they put all the rock guitar solos together!”

Michaela’s mother, Susan, agrees, adding, “This show is just amazing — it’s so high energy, and Nina DiGregorio is spectacular! There is such a great chemistry between the performers — they all look like they are having a great time — which makes it even more entertaining!”

Other adults in the audience share their feelings about the concert to us, as well.

Cheryl from Colonia, for example, calls Femmes of Rock “an awesome show”— one which is “just spectacular,” and “well worth the money.”

Moreover, John from Rahway goes on to admit, “Going to this concert tonight was a surprise from my wife. It was thrilling — breathtaking! I was on the edge of my seat. I can’t wait to see their next show!”

And lastly, John’s wife, Jennifer, reveals, “I bought tickets for John and me because I thought it would be like the violin quartet that played at our wedding,” before acknowledging, “Now, it wasn’t anything like that at all — but I loved it!” and exclaiming, ‘I never knew violins could sound like that!”

For further information about Bella Electric Strings’ production of Femmes of Rock, please go to femmesofrock.com. To learn more about upcoming performances at UCPAC — including An Evening with John Popper and Friends on Sept. 30, The Amazing Kreskin on Nov. 3, and Tony Danza on Nov. 25 — please click on ucpac.org.

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For the best in Jersey entertainment news and reviews, keep it focused on Spotlight Central

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