Quartet San Francisco

LA City Beat: It Takes Four to Tango

Quartet San Francisco artfully impersonates an Argentine orchestra at the Ford

By DONNA PERLMUTTER, Los Angeles City Beat

Two of our summertime showplaces, Hollywood Bowl and the Ford Amphitheatre, sit opposite each other up Cahuenga Pass. One is gargantuan – a word that could also describe the traffic clogs when about 8,000 cars bottleneck their way to and from these pleasure palaces. The other is a relatively small, idyllic grotto.

Both of them offer precious public exposure to little known and/or up-and-coming artists. The barter or trade-off accounts for the low talent fees. It was even bandied about – jokingly, of course – that former Los Angeles Philharmonic executive director Ernest Fleischmann could sign up some of his rookie soloists for “a nickel” per debut. It was considered fair exchange.

But the hordes, less picky about who’s onstage and more interested in wine-tasting and picnicking in the great outdoors, are delighted no matter. And deserving debutants can notch an important credit to their bios.

Last weekend at the Ford (which downplays eating and drinking and invites greater attention to its performances), there was a cheering exercise in artful innovation, offered up by the Cohen brothers. No, not those Coen brothers who make artfully innovative movies. But violinist Jeremy and cellist Joel, founding members of their Quartet San Francisco.

Now here’s the remarkable part. They, along with violinist Kayo Miki and violist Emily Onderdonk, had us believing that a virtuoso string quartet could impersonate a genuine tango orchestra from Buenos Aires – right down to its snappy, playful milonga bursting with that exact rhythmic elasticity and stop-on-a-dime surprise that addicted us when shows like Tango Argentina, Forever Tango, and Tango Bravo came to town.

And imagine this: There was not a bandoneon in earshot or sight. Nor any caballero, one foot propped on a chair, whooshing baleful cadences from his baby accordion. But, by god, here was the DNA of tango – its authenticity in sound and expression and musicality . . . the San Franciscans really stood on their own – especially arranger/composer Jeremy Cohen, who also held forth with easygoing, unself-conscious, informative patter introducing the program items. And, because his interests span a wide musical map, the words mattered.

They took us from Carlos Gardel’s “El Dia Que Me Queiras,” which had all the sorrowful grandeur an opera orchestra could project – although it would’ve been nice to have a singer as well – to Astor Piazzolla numbers with their brooding, dark-of-night melancholy.

The quartet’s North American side made equally strong points. Brubeck’s “Strange Meadowlark” was sheer loveliness, and “Blue Rondo à la Turk” got a complex string quartet scoring as a middle movement. And I’m sure that the dense arrangement of “Cool” from West Side Story, which also stayed true to its finger-snapping exterior, would have pleased Bernstein himself.

Typically, violinist Cohen invoked Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt when jazz syncopation entered the picture. But a certain hayseedy, country sound was never far away from the group’s style in this department.

What’s important to know is that all classically trained musicians don’t fit into an established category. Either by choice or need, some of them find a wholly eclectic niche like the one these versatile string players have created. And, happily, they have the Ford as a host.