The first thing concertgoers to Saturday’s performance by the Dallas String Quartet at the Clayton Center for the Arts will notice when the musicians take the stage is that, despite the name, there actually will be six people on stage.
That’s clue No. 1 that this isn’t the typical tuxedoes-and-evening-gowns evening of classical music. If that’s not enough, the first song of the second set will hammer that point home.
“The first half, we’ll play some classical repertoire in more of a string quartet form,” Ion Zanca, the group’s violinist, told The Daily Times recently. “It’s not all classical, but for the second half, we switch to electric instruments and kick it up a notch. We do a lot of shows with symphonies, and we were doing one not long ago where I looked down front, where the big patrons and board members sit, and it was all these older ladies who looked like they were really enjoying the first act.
“I remember feeling a little panicky, because I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, how are they going to enjoy the second act?’ Because we were starting with (Led Zeppelin’s) ‘Kashmir!’ So we were invited to dinner with the board members and the symphony’s supporters after the concert, and I always like to ask for feedback, so I asked the ladies, ‘I’m just curious: Which act did you like more?’ And they all said, ‘The first act was really nice, but I really loved the second half!’”
Obviously, when The Wall Street Journal described the group as “not your grandmother’s string quartet,” they weren’t kidding. There’s a reason the press material describes Dallas String Quartet’s sound as the place “where Bach meets Bon Jovi,” although it’s only been in recent years that the ensemble has played to its versatile strength in marketing the divergent nature of its live performances.
“For the last year or two, we’ve been trying to prepare the promoters and the venues and give them the right material to show that this is definitely not your classical string quartet,” he said. “In the beginning, when we started touring, we realized that promoters didn’t know how to advertise it, and that’s when ‘where Bach meets Bon Jovi’ came up. It’s a musical journey.
“You listen to music all day, from Bach to U2 to Coldplay — it’s everywhere. This is a different take on old and modern music. There’s a lot of energy, and we’re always excited about playing. I remember that last year, we had a 21-day tour with 18 concerts, but we were still excited to play, every time. There was never any boredom, because we were somehow able to change things just enough to stay excited.”
Zanca moved to the United States from Romania in 2001 to attend Louisiana State University. Three years later, he moved to Dallas to attend Southern Methodist University, where he met a girl and started dating her. Her father, however, cocked his eyebrows when he discovered his daughter was dating a musician.
“I was finishing my master’s, and I was preparing more for an orchestral career with a group like the Dallas Symphony,” he said. “Her father asked me if I had a job yet, but for musicians, you have to do these orchestral auditions, and you don’t know when you’re going to get a job when there are 200 people auditioning for one spot.
“It’s not like engineering, where you finish school and get a job. So I thought, ‘Maybe I should start a business on the side until I decide what orchestra I’m going to (join). So I started a quartet.”
At first, the group’s performances were muted, sedate affairs, mostly for weddings and gatherings where the music was an afterthought. What he discovered was that, playing classical acoustic music, no one paid them any attention. And Zanca didn’t want to be a background musician.
“We said, ‘We have to do something different — let’s start an electric string quartet!’” he said with a laugh. “We had to customize everything, and it was an adjustment, but gradually, what started as an extra job became something I really enjoyed. It gives us freedom to be more creative than a standard string quartet, and that was the beginning of it.”
The first rock song the Dallas String Quartet incorporated into its repertoire was the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” a natural fit. Songs by Coldplay followed, and as the group became the toast of the Dallas fine arts scene, one enthusiastic fan offered to bankroll a debut album. The first batch sold tremendously well, and over time, the ensemble began to find its sea legs. Not everyone was on board, though.
“There used to be a girl who played with us, who also played with the Dallas Opera, who flat out said, ‘This is not for me. I don’t play this style of music, and I’m not enjoying this, so maybe you can have me back when you play more classical,’” Zanca said with a chuckle. “On the other hand, our cellist was also a guitarist who loved rock, and he loved playing cello with a pick, so that was something really cool for him to do.”
The logistics, he added, were tricky at first. They didn’t want to perform Muzak renditions of classic rock songs — they wanted to capture the power as well, so they had to figure out ways to merge pop rhythms with classical ones. Eventually, they added drums to the mix to give the songs more muscle, but the basic approach remains the same as it did in those early years. What they’ve found as they’ve become more adept, Zanca said, is that many popular rock songs they choose to cover have a complexity to them that lends itself to a number of different genre translations.
“A lot of the songs, they’ve already got a good structure and real melody,” he said. “It’s hard to orchestra songs that don’t have much going on, but we’re not afraid to try new things, like orchestrating ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine (by Guns ‘N’ Roses) for electric strings. That’s what we like. For a lot of classical players who have been doing this for 20 years, they play one way and one way only, and to find out that all of the sudden, you can do this? You can plug in and play electric and add guitar and play an octave lower? It’s like a whole new world opened to us.”
Over the past decade, the Dallas String Quartet has garnered both national and international attention, performing for presidents (George W. Bush and Barack Obama), the College Football Playoff, the NBA, the NFL and alongside such similarly disciplined acts as Chicago and Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Zanca is joined in the group by violinists Eleanor Dunbar and Melissa Priller, bassist Young Heo, guitarist Anthony Plant and percussionist/drummer Efren Guzman. Everyone is encouraged to bring material to the table, Zanca said, and every song goes through a rigorous process of democratic arrangement.
“Our background is so very different,” he said. “We have three classically trained players, and then the three other guys with jazz backgrounds on bass, drums and guitar. At the beginning, we were trying to imitate all of these instruments with just a quartet, but now, we’ve realized we can expand the sound palate so much.”
And whether it’s soft-pedaling the more exotic material by kicking off the second half of the concert with “Kashmir” before pulling out Aerosmith’s “Love In an Elevator,” or giving holiday songs a Dallas String Quartet makeover as the musicians do on a forthcoming holiday album, the goal is always the same: to take listeners on a musical journey.
“It’s really about that wide spectrum in the repertoire of music,” Zanca said. “The part of the concert that’s very serious is the first half, but we also understand that people, after 30 minutes or so, their attention spans go down. You can’t give them a really high dose of classical, so the second part is such a different take that they feel like they’re going to two separate concerts.”