Music preview

Sonus Quartet plays Live at the Lounge
by Mark McDermott
Published June 25, 2009

It was the likes of which few people in the audiences had ever before seen or heard.
A few years ago, the Sonus Quartet made a very purposeful decision to take classical music to places it had never gone before. The string quartet – a cello, viola, and two violins – were a young group of classically trained musicians who hoped to bring the music they cherished out of its more rarified realms. And so, with some trepidation, they began booking gigs in the nightclubs of L.A.
Cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith recalled that the quartet was a little cautious at first.
“We were a bit hesitant to play too many classical things in a row, because we thought maybe people wouldn’t relate to them, or wouldn’t like it, so we were sort of padding the set a little bit with more Led Zeppelin covers or Beatles covers or whatever, which we equally enjoyed doing,” she said.
But a funny thing kept happening. Audiences seemed to not only like, but even prefer, the classical pieces.
“I think the fact that the four of us all are all young and don’t look different from the people that would be in the audiences in those clubs – we were hoping, well, maybe if they see four people up on stage they feel like maybe they could relate to, maybe they will listen to this with the ears that we hear it with, which is just being open to it and loving it,” she said. “And hearing that Shostakovich can rock out as much as Led Zeppelin, you know?”
The response was often unexpectedly emotional. And quizzical.
“I would have people come up to me afterwards, ‘What is your instrument called?’ Like they didn’t know what my cello was, but they were like, ‘That was amazing. I’ve never heard those sounds before.’”
The quartet was founded in 2003 with a somewhat less unusual but no less passionate intent. Freebairn-Smith and co-founder Neel Hammond wanted to find a way to play music with the same people the rest of their lives. They began their life as a quartet auspiciously, training under one of the revered such groups in the world, the Julliard Quartet, and completing a residency at the esteemed Banff Centre in Canada. Their intent was never to skirt the classical repertoire, but rather to go as deeply into the music as they could.
“We were just sort of trying to get our chops together as a classical group because I think we all had a lot of respect for the string quartet as a tradition,” Freebairn-Smith said. “You could spend your entire life playing with four people and still trying to hone in on your sound and your intonation and everything. So we wanted to respect the art enough to get a really good footing.”
After two years refining their sound, the LA-based quartet made the decision to reach beyond the classical world. They wanted to take their music outside its somewhat more stuffy confines and let it breath a little. They wanted people their own age to hear the music. Classical music, after all, had not always been an art form so far removed from so much of society. It had once been a very popular music.
“Classical music, it’s such a cliché, ‘Oh, it’s a dying art form,’” Freebairn-Smith said. “But it’s really true. You just don’t find a lot of the younger generation who would be interested in putting on a Beethoven symphony. But I think if you put it in the right context, they would be blown away… It isn’t some kind of highbrow elitist old white man thing – that isn’t what it is for, anyways. And I think it’s much nicer to be in the audience with a cocktail and relaxing instead of feeling like you have to sit on the edge of your chair and clap only at the right times.”
The quartet has since taken their lush, dramatic, and often boldly experimental sound to stages throughout the world. They have performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall and New York’s Lincoln Center and in other more traditional chamber settings. But they have also toured with an astonishing array of pop stars – including Gnarls Barkley, Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck, Jay-Z, and Jewel – and played late night talk shows such as Leno and Letterman as well as epic auditorium rock concerts.
The quartet, which plays Live at the Lounge in Hermosa Friday night, has crossed every kind of musical boundary imaginable.
“As a classical player, you don’t necessarily grow up dreaming of one day being on a stage with a screaming audience,” Freebairn-Smith said. “It’s like at most you are hoping people are going to be sitting quietly and listening. It’s kind of fun to be able to take a drink with you out on stage and dance around a little bit and have people screaming.”
Musically, they have boldly gone where few quartets have gone before. And they do so nightly. In the course of a single concert, the Sonus Quartet will leap from an Italian madrigal written for four voices in the 1400s to a gypsy air composed for violin and orchestra in 1878 (Pablo de Sarasate’s “Zigeunerweisen”) to the rarely performed “Echoes” (by Bernard Herrmann, best known for his Hitchcock film scores) on to a hauntingly rendered “Within You Without You” (George Harrison’s ethereal Indian-influenced song from the late 1960s) and finally very much up into the present with a work composed especially for the quartet by the L.A. based hip-hop orchestra daKAH’s composer Double G. Somewhere in the mix, on any given, might be some Radiohead or Beethoven.
There is, in a way, a larger point being beautifully made here. The Sonus Quartet does not play pop music as some sort of a novelty act: they do so out of a love and appreciation for all the music they play. Music is like a river, and while it may have many tributaries, it all has a common source – it is all ultimately about human feeling and expression. In this case, such feeling is expressed with virtuosic ambition and verve and an exuberant liberation from expectation.
“What we enjoy in one piece is no different from what we enjoy in another,” Freebairn-Smith said. “It’s just a different form of the same expression. So, hopefully it translates to the audience and it’s an interesting show that has different highs and lows and different colors and loud and soft and all that.”
The Sonus Quartet include Freebairn-Smith on cello, Caroline Campbell and Kathleen Sloan on violins, and Neel Hammond on viola. For more information and song samples, see The quartet plays Live at the Lounge June 26. $10. See for show info. ER