Oakland violinist Jeremy Cohen didn't travel to Buenos Aires to study tango. Instead, Argentina came to him.
After rigorous classical training with Anne Crowden in Berkeley and Itzhak Perlman in New York City, Cohen satisfied his far-flung musical interests as a Los Angeles studio ace. When he returned to the Bay Area in 1995, it was to take over the second violin chair in "Forever Tango," the hit show that sparked the region's ongoing romance with the erotically charged Argentine art form.
"That was the beginning of my tango boot camp," Cohen says. "Almost everyone in the orchestra was Argentine, and they insisted I play stylistically appropriate. When the guy playing first violin had to return to Argentina, they started grooming me to be the lead player, and I held down that chair until the original show closed 18 months later."
While he's devoted a good deal of his creative energy in recent years to his stellar swing band ViolinJazz with pianist Larry Dunlap, Cohen has kept a foot firmly planted in tango territory. This weekend, his Grammy Award-nominated ensemble Quartet San Francisco collaborates with the Peninsula Symphony, performing his original arrangements of tangos by Arturo Marquez, Astor Piazzolla and Agustin Bardi on Friday at Redwood City's Fox Theater and Saturday at De Anza College's Flint Center.
Founded in 2001, Quartet San Francisco has showcased some of the Bay Area's most inventive string players. The Peninsula Symphony performances feature the quartet's latest incarnation, with Atherton-raised cellist Kelley Maulbetsch; violinist Matthew Szemela, a fine jazz player who spent years in the fusion repertory band Mahavishnu Project, and Capitola violist Chad Kaltinger, principal violist for Opera San Jose and the Santa Cruz Symphony.
The ensemble's singular repertoire, which runs the gamut from Brubeck, Beethoven and the Beatles to Raymond Scott, Mozart and Mingus, requires a skill set not obtained in the typical conservatory.
"What I need is high-end classical chops, but our music often needs some real skills in improvisation, too," Cohen says. "I can write solos for them, but I prefer it when they take the music to their own place. I'm looking for colleagues who can go toe-to-toe with me and meet me as an improviser."
Cohen's insistent eclecticism makes him an ideal partner for the Peninsula Symphony. The tango program represents the ensemble's latest embrace of material outside the usual classical and pops fare, with a particular focus on concerts that include dance.
This weekend's shows climax with Sandor and Parissa, the principal dancers in the popular production "Tango Vivo!" Cohen first met Sandor when he starred in "Forever Tango," though Sandor and Parissa have introduced the dance to far wider audiences by choreographing many of the tangos featured on ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."
"In tango, music and dance are inextricably linked, and if we're calling it a tango program I want to explore lots of different aspects of tango, not just dipping a toe in the water, but jumping in," says Mitchell Sardou Klein, the Peninsula Symphony music director and conductor. "Sandor and Parissa are very sensuous dancers, but they're also quite theatrical and athletic."
Far more than like-minded colleagues, Klein and Cohen "go back a long way, longer than I'm happy to admit," Klein says. They first met in the mid-1970s when Cohen was a prodigiously promising high school violinist who was teaching a music course at the Oakland synagogue where his father served as cantor.
"Jeremy was on the conservatory track, studying violin very seriously, progressing with other high-end players, but he had this fascination with jazz and other traditions," Klein recalls. "We all thought he was just a little crazy, and fortunately, he still is. He was convinced he could do work in the classical world but stay involved in the other traditions, jazz and tango, and he's done it brilliantly."
Cohen's most impressive achievement might flow from his pen rather than his bow. Untrained in arranging and orchestration, he essentially taught himself to write symphonic scores. Motivated more by the daunting economics of hiring an arranger than creative ambition, Cohen started by expanding the tango charts on Quartet San Francisco's acclaimed 2002 debut album.
"The trick is figuring out how that music integrates into a real symphony orchestra," Klein says. "Little by little, Jeremy has done a great job teaching himself how to orchestrate, and they have these pieces really refined and polished."
With Quartet San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Fox Theater, 2215 Broadway St., Redwood City
Tickets: $40, 650-941-5291, www.peninsulasymphony.org
Also: 8 p.m. Saturday, Flint Center, De Anza College, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino, $40, 650-941-5291, www.peninsulasymphony.org.