The string trio Infinitus will challenge traditional views of classical repertoire May 3 at First United Church.

The string trio Infinitus will challenge traditional views of classical repertoire May 3 at First United Church.

Infinitus trio to ‘mix up’ the classics

String group has won acclaim for fusing classical technique with a hip hop sensibility

Don’t box them in.

The Vancouver-based string trio Infinitus – as the name suggests – are more to do with the realm of infinite musical possibility than pat categorization.

In fact, the only box they acknowledge in their performing is their beat box. It’s become an established feature of the crowd-pleasing, hip-hop take on classical performance they’ve become renowned for in concerts across Canada and the U.S.

But that’s not the whole Infinitus story either, according to the trio’s violinist and spokesman John H. Littlejohn.

The first half of their debut performance in White Rock and South Surrey (presented by Peninsula Productions, Friday, May 3, 8 p.m., at First United Church, 15385 Semiahmoo Ave.) will likely follow a strictly classical approach, he added.

“The first half will feature Dohnanyi’s Serenade For String Trio – a very beautiful piece,” he noted.

“We often play completely classical, depending on the context and what’s appropriate, such as if we’re doing an all-classical series.

“We don’t feel stifled in any way.”

In fact, he and twin brothers Alex Cheung (cello) and Anthony Cheung (viola) all met and became close friends while being thoroughly schooled in classical technique at the University of Michigan (Littlejohn was born and raised in Michigan, while the Cheungs were born in Montreal but grew up in Ohio).

Although they went their separate ways while attending graduate school (Littlejohn at the Peabody Institute, the Cheungs at UBC) they stayed in touch and started gigging together in a string quartet around 2006, with Littlejohn travelling up from Texas for performances before he finally settled in Canada.

The current format and free-and-easy personality of Infinitus really began when the group metamorphosed into a trio in 2008.

“We played with some very fine musicians but we couldn’t find a fourth member who could do classical and non-classical at the same time,” Littlejohn said.

“We were waiting for a person who wasn’t there.”

Once they made the decision to become a trio they found it easier to expand on traditional string repertoire by developing their own Latin, jazz and hip hop originals and arrangements – complete with the beat box.

It’s that’s the side of their playing – emphasizing their own joy in music –  that will be featured in the second half of the White Rock appearance, Littlejohn said.

“We’ll be doing some of our originals, some remixes of classical pieces and some hip hop,” he added, noting that the trio – who like to memorize even their classical pieces rather than playing with heads stuck in books – also like to keep it loose when determining the final playlist for a specific evening.

“We don’t look like a concert,” he said.

“We like to think we’re hanging out. We encourage people to clap between movements. We’re always with the audience, talking with them, sharing with them. We’re together – there’s not some wall up between us.

“That’s how classical music used to be when it was first played – really, we’re getting back to the original approach.”

About 70 per cent of the performance of their own compositions is improvising on chord structures, he noted, adding that it sometimes leads to wild flights of fancy and extended introductions that raise a chuckle among the musicians themselves.

While Littlejohn said the trio makes “no apologies for who we are,” he admits they had a little trepidation about the reaction they’d receive from audiences when they first took the beat box to performances.

They needn’t have worried, he said, adding that the approach seemed to work even with more senior audiences who might have been expected to be more conservative.

“The only complaint we got at first was that people couldn’t hear it, but we soon figured out how to mic it,” he said.

“For us, one of the defining moments was a performance in Burns Lake. We were trying to be careful, but we kind of touched it off and this senior lady in the front row yelled out ‘Boy that’s hot!’

“It turned out they wanted hip hop.”

Tickets ($25 advance, $30 at the door) are available from Tapestry Music or online at https://tickets.surrey.ca