It all started with the Pink Panther.
Today, the adventurous ensemble known as Quartet San Francisco is due to find out whether “Látigo,” its new CD of tango music for string quartet, has won either of the Grammys that it was nominated for, including one for best crossover classical album.
But before there was such a thing as Quartet San Francisco, there was a handful of string players touring Bay Area public schools under the aegis of the San Francisco Symphony’s education program, Adventures in Music. And one of them, violist Emily Onderdonk, decided on the spur of the moment to demonstrate her instrument by playing Henry Mancini’s famously slinky musical theme.
“As soon as she did that, the kids just lit up,” says her colleague, violinist Jeremy Cohen. “You could see the connection. And I thought that what we needed, instead of a middle movement of a Haydn string quartet, was a great arrangement of the ‘Pink Panther’ theme.”
So Cohen got to work. Within a short period, he’d worked up quartet arrangements not only of the “Pink Panther” theme, but also of the jazz and popular hits that had always been on his stereo — music by Dave Brubeck, Stevie Wonder, Tower of Power, Duke Ellington and Earth, Wind & Fire. Then, in what he calls a “chicken and egg” development, the quartet came into being to play those arrangements.
“The material gave birth to the group,” Cohen says during a recent group interview at his Oakland home. “It was just like in the old movies — ‘I’ve got a barn. I’ve got some music. Let’s put on a show!’ ”
The other members of the quartet are Cohen’s brother Joel, who plays cello, and the newest member, second violinist Kayo Miki, who joined in 2004 just before the group went off to New York to compete in an international tango competition at the Argentine Consulate — which they won.
“It was my first experience playing this music,” says Miki, whose training had been exclusively in the classical tradition. “And everything felt different — playing with your arm down, with no vibrato, and playing at the base of the bow. It was all about feeling it in your body.”
Tango first entered the group’s repertoire as a result of Jeremy Cohen’s experience with one of those gigs that make up the bread and butter of most working musicians’ lives: He spent two years in the pit for the long-running theatrical hit “Forever Tango,” first as second violinist and then as first. The original first violinist, an Argentine player named Miguel Bertero, took him aside before each performance and schooled him in the language of tango.
“He took tango incredibly seriously as an art form,” Cohen says. “These guys play every day as though their life depended on it, and he taught me a set of rules and parameters about tango.
“As an improviser, I had this idea that I could stick something jazzy into the music and change it around — but no. You have to increase your vocabulary to the point where you learn what is appropriate in a style and what isn’t.”
Tango, in Cohen’s way of thinking, offers a fusion of Latin rhythms and the overt emotionalism of the European Romantics, and the group’s playing reflects that combination. The melodic writing in his arrangements comes through with heartfelt eloquence, yet the rhythms are crisp and clear enough to dance to.
“The big, soaring lines that seem to be free of the shackles of the bar lines actually get their freedom from a solid rhythmic foundation,” he says. “And classical players don’t usually think of themselves as a rhythm section.”
All of the quartet’s members began as classically trained musicians, with greater or lesser mixtures of jazz and pop music thrown in. Even Cohen — whose extensive career as a jazz player included two years with the innovative Turtle Island String Quartet — started out under the fierce but free-thinking tutelage of Berkeley teacher Anne Crowden (“Látigo” is dedicated to her memory).
“I was playing in bluegrass bands and rock bands and a Western swing band,” he says. “And Anne, bless her heart, said, ‘I don’t care what you do at night, but I damn sure care that you show up to your lesson with your scales and arpeggios in good shape.’ That was extraordinary at a point when, for most teachers, the rules were the rules.”
Onderdonk, whose resume is a little more traditional — she’s played with the Berkeley Symphony and the Reno Philharmonic, and she’s currently principal violist with the Sacramento Philharmonic — also has a history of involvement with rock and bluegrass groups.
These players see the quartet as occupying a middle ground between the Turtle Island, which comes from a more traditional jazz background, and a group like the Kronos Quartet, which approaches a wide range of genre-bending repertoire through the prism of classical performance.
“We’re not a real jazz band, in the sense of every single person being able to improvise,” says Onderdonk. “But we’re working on it.”
Asked about the group’s name — which offers little hint to the uninitiated as to whether the quartet is devoted to the music of Astor Piazzolla, Charlie Parker or Franz Schubert — Cohen insisted that it reflects the city’s spirit of tolerance and eclecticism.
“Wherever you go outside of San Francisco, this is a name that implies something to people on an emotional level. For some people it’s the Golden Gate Bridge, for some it’s Tony Bennett or the Castro or their honeymoon. We want to be part of that.
“We want to be the sourdough bread of chamber music.”