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Santa Clarita musicians find the strings that bind

Local 16-year-olds formed a string quartet and will compete in prestigious national competition

Posted: April 13, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 13, 2014 2:00 a.m.

The Clemens Quartet, from left, K.J. McDonald, Jason Corbin, Alex Mansour and Patrick Marsh, perform at The Signal.

 

The Signal newsroom in Santa Clarita was quiet but for the patter of keyboards and the grit of scanner feedback.

Breaking the concentration of working reporters, soft chamber music carried through the open warehouse door.

Inside the warehouse – an expansive, empty industrial space that once housed a printing press – four boys in black pants and button-ups cradled their auburn instruments, poised to perform.

Gently the quartet, made up of three violinists and a cellist, evoked the sorrowful sounds of the greats.

“If you’re feeling goose bumps while we’re playing, chances are we’re feeling them, too,” said K.J. McDonald, the first-string violinist.

All from different high schools, the four 16-year-olds comprise the Clemens Quartet, a local group that will be competing in the “Olympics for chamber musicians,” said the cellist’s father, Robert Mansour.

Beating about 80 ensembles, the Clemens Quartet is one of 20 selected groups to compete in the national 2014 Fischoff Competition junior category for musicians under age 18 on May 9, the group said.

“It’s the highest level of competition you can reach,” Mansour said.

Getting there

About three years ago, the boys were grouped together through national organization Junior Chamber Music – a matchmaking and training program for young chamber musicians.

Though the quartet originally started with a different cellist, who left for college last year, Alex Mansour has been a welcome addition, the boys said.

JCM originally connected the players, but something else has kept the boys together.

“Pizza,” they said in unison.

“The first half hour is just hanging out in the kitchen eating pizza,” said violinist Patrick Marsh, getting chuckles and nods in response.

“They’re just teenagers at the end of the day, after all,” Mansour said.

After the last slice is gone, however, the boys take as much care with their music as they do cleaning a pizza box.

The music

To prepare for a competition like Fischoff, the boys practice daily on their own, in addition to group rehearsals.

While one may practice regularly for a handful of hours, another may commit six to eight hours of individual practice.

But each boy brings something different to the quartet.

“It’s very obvious where our strengths and our weaknesses are,” Alex said.

With meticulous care, the group drastically slows down the speed of the composition, playing quietly and softly every piece until it’s perfect.

“We pick it apart and break it into little pieces,” Patrick said. “Then you can repair the pieces and put them back together.”

But practice isn’t as fun as pizza and jam sessions all the time, Alex said, especially in the midst of tireless practice on one passage.

“It’s hard, but this is the pay-off,” he said of performing. “It’s worth pushing through the hardship.

“We’re playing classical music that’s been around for hundreds of years,” Alex continued. “Playing good music is kind of like reading a good book – it takes you to another world.”

Deepening their analogy of music to literature, the boys named the quartet after author Mark Twain’s real name, Samuel Clemens.

The first composition they played together was American, and they approach all their music with an American style, K.J. said.

“So we thought, ‘Why not?’” he said with a laugh.

More than music

Though the boys learn pages of music and scores of passages in their studies as musicians, working together to produce a competition-ready composition creates avenues for learning outside of music.

They learn to identify and emulate the emotion of the music.

Each with a unique set of mannerisms, the boys are as interesting to watch as to listen to.

While K.J. employs his entire body, bobbing and nodding with the intensity of the music, Patrick remains still. Cleary, both are thinking of nothing but the music.

“We’re crying on the inside,” said violinist Jason Corbin.

Matching the intensity and speed of the music, Jason leans in toward another musician, playing in unison with his friend until he breaks through the composed exterior of a controlled musician to trade childlike smiles of satisfaction.

“There’s a certain camaraderie and friendship that comes with being in a group with other people,” Alex said. “We all love music, but we all listen to different kinds. A lot of rehearsal tends to be working out those musical conflicts – let’s meet in the middle and find some way to create a sound as a group, not only individual personal identities.”

Though not all the players envision careers in music, not one can imagine music not having an important place in their lives, they said.

“We’re growing as people,” Alex said.

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