Monday, December 13, 2021

The Mason Home Concerts Are Back!

Violinist Geneva Lewis, cellist Michael Kaufman, and pianist Marisa Gupta play Schumann and Brahms at the Mason Home.


Lewis/Kaufman/Gupta trio play Schumann and Brahms, Mason House, Mar Vista

The Mason Home Concerts have been a grievous absence of the pandemic, a kind of guilty displeasure, small in the realm of Covid tragedies but, for those fortunate enough to have experienced them, irreplaceable in the heart. So it was emotionally an uplift to return for a chamber music program for the first time since early 2020, to chat with audience regulars again, to immerse oneself in host and impresario Todd Mason’s gracious hospitality, and above all to once again hear beautifully-chosen chamber music in a room designed for its presentation.

This being Southern California, the Mason Home is an indoor/outdoor venue. Musicians and audience were masked inside, but permitted to go unmasked out on the patio, enjoying individually wrapped snacks and beverages on a cool but not cold winter’s night. All attendees were required to prove double-vaccination, which gave a further margin of comfort, allowing us to leave coronavirus trauma behind to focus on the music and fellowship with regular attendees.

Todd Mason.
Chamber music is an intimate experience, and this was especially true for those fortunate enough to have attended Mason Home Concerts in the past. How to restart this conversation? That question must have crossed Todd’s mind in programming this concert, held on the evening of Saturday, December 4, 2021.

The opener he chose, Robert Schumann’s 6 Studien in kanonischer Form, Op. 56 (1845), couldn’t have been more appropriate for the moment. This is one of three sets of pieces Schumann wrote to explore contrapuntal music, coinciding with a time when severe depression and “nervous prostration” had driven him from his conservatory post in Leipzig to Dresden. In part, these compositions were inspired by a piece of equipment he brought with him: a pedal attachment for the piano that was used for conservatory training of organ students. The version we heard was arranged for piano trio.

Clara and Robert Schumann, c.1850.
The result was a piece of gorgeous solemnity, with healing echoes of sacred music, but presented at human scale. Hearing it reminded me of the Emily Dickinson poem that begins, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes– / The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs–.

The trio, comprising violinist Geneva Lewis, cellist Michael Kaufman, and pianist Marisa Gupta, achieved an almost perfect aural balance, smartly cooperating with the Mason Home’s lively acoustics in subdued, empathetic playing that enabled each voice in the musical conversation to be heard without shouting, carefully controlled so that each movement’s harmonic resolution could sink in. It was as if we’d just been told a secret—a breathtakingly restrained performance that seemed mindful of the path of trauma that led us all into this room together to find musical relief.

Michael Kaufman.
But then it was for Gupta and Lewis to take us on a different, more emotionally unbridled journey, with their flawless performance of Schumann’s Sonate (in A moll) für Pianoforte und Violine Opus 105 (Violin Sonata No. 1) of 1851. Lewis made her debut at age 11 with the Pasadena Symphony, received a 2001 Avery Fisher Career Grant, and won Grand Prize in the 2020 Concert Artists Guild Competition.

Geneva Lewis.
Her exploration of the depths of Schumann’s poignant yet powerful work revealed, to use the cliché, wisdom beyond her years, with remarkable tonal colorings and thoughtful attention to dynamics. She is a compelling artist, technically gifted but also intuitive and mindful, and her performance was strong but precise.

After intermission, LA Opus' David J. Brown gave a talk on the lives of Robert Schumann, his brilliant pianist spouse Clara, and their friend Johannes Brahms, and the effects of Robert’s crippling mental illness on all of them. He spent his final years in a Bonn asylum after a suicide attempt that led him to warn Clara that he might be a danger to her. Perhaps for that reason, he was not allowed to see her, but Brahms was a regular visitor. This familial connection between all three was the perfect glide path into the program’s final performance, Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87 (1880/1882).

The young Brahms, c.1855.
By the time Brahms completed this trio, Robert had been dead for more than a quarter century. Clara, who continued with her career as a touring concert pianist, remained close to Brahms, in a relationship that is usually described as a blend of friendship and love. She often premiered his piano compositions and on many occasions he test-drove his works in progress for her. Among them were opening movements to two piano trios he was working on in 1880, one in E-flat major and one in C major. Clara reportedly preferred the former, but eventually Brahms destroyed it to concentrate on finishing the trio in C, which we heard.

Brahms’ persona had changed by the 1880s—now the mature, bearded composer rather than the handsome, rakish concert pianist of his younger days. Of the trio in C, he wrote to his publisher, "You have not yet had such a beautiful trio from me and very likely have not published its equal in the last 10 years." This four-movement Piano Trio No. 2 in C major was first performed in Frankfurt on a December night in 1882, doubtless a chillier evening than we experienced on this December night in 2021 in West Los Angeles.

Marisa Gupta.
Our threesome gave it a wonderful performance, conveying the brooding qualities of its first two movements with the same fulsome commitment that they lent to its more vivacious and rhythmic final movements. Lewis and Kaufman once again found a way to match their respective gorgeous string tones in the trio’s many duet passages. In all four movements, Brahms begins with the violin and cello playing together in octaves, and the players thoughtfully achieved this unity. Gupta was master of the piano’s different roles throughout the work, adding richness to the moodier passages and a pulsing counterpoint to its more playful sections, especially the finale.

These Mason Home Concerts have been so missed by their fans, and much of the pleasure here was the communion of audience members together again, hearing this dynamic group of young musicians. Life is far from “back to normal” in LA or anywhere else, but perhaps we can all get through this pandemic if we have the occasional foray into live classical music to bring us back together. 


Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6 p.m., Saturday, December 4, 2021.
Images: The concert: Todd Mason; The Schumanns: Getty Images; Michael Kaufman: Davi Michael Photography, Inc.; Geneva Lewis: Motti Fang-Bentov; Brahms: Wikimedia Commons; Marisa Gupta: Yellow Barn.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Dvořák and Brahms Twice Over in the South Bay

The Thies Consort at LAHC Miller Recital Hall: l-r Jessica Guideri, Robert Thies, John Walz.


The Thies Consort, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Miller Recital Hall, Los Angeles Harbor College
Gupta/Lewis/Kaufman trio, Mason Home Concert

Maybe it’s just my reaction (though I don’t think it is), but the performances we’ve been enjoying since the resumption of live concerts here in the LA area seem by and large to have been imbued with a special charge—an extra vigor and/or sense of commitment and/or enthusiasm; perhaps even more, a renewed infusion of vital necessity—and by that not-so-mysterious osmosis between performer and listener, this seems to have been mirrored in audience reactions.

Brahms in 1882, the year he completed
his Piano Trio No. 2.
Certainly this was true of the two recitals that we were privileged to enjoy at the first weekend in December, which pivoted around performances by the two ensembles concerned of the same masterwork, Brahms’ Piano Trio No. 2 in C major, Op. 87. In both cases it formed the climax to the recital, but the contexts made one’s reactions to the piece somewhat different.

Two concerts from the last season before the pandemic of the (surely) unique chamber music series that LA composer Todd Mason presents in his Mar Vista home have previously been reviewed on LA Opus (here and here) and as my colleague John Stodder will be reviewing the latest recital in detail, there’s no need for more than a brief note about it here.

That “special charge” was fully in evidence throughout the passionately driven performances by Geneva Lewis (violin), Mike Kaufman (cello), and Marisa Gupta (piano)—amazingly, they apparently do not play together regularly as a trio—of two works by Robert Schumann, and then after the interval for refreshments, the Brahms. Schumann’s 6 Studien in kanonischer Form Op. 56 were originally written for the pedal piano, but sounded entirely idiomatic in this transcription for piano trio, while the intensity of Ms. Lewis’s playing in Schumann’s three-movement Violin Sonata No. 1 in A minor Op. 105 made the piece even more darkly concentrated than usual.

Robert Thies.
After this their performance of the bigger, four-movement Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 was just as driven and with ensemble even more immaculate—if that were possible—formed an overwhelmingly impactful climax to the concert. This climactic effect contrasted somewhat with the previous evening in the fine recital hall at Los Angeles Harbor College, where the same work formed the second half of the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s last concert of 2021, given by The Thies Consort (Robert Thies, piano; Jessica Guideri, violin; John Walz, cello).

While no less filled with that “special charge” of vitality and urgent communicativeness, in this hall’s ampler acoustic their performance of the Brahms had seemed more warmly homogeneous and perhaps more reflective; but, though it seems odd to say it of a mature work by one of the greatest composers who ever lived, the piece seemed somewhat constrained and diminished by comparison with the towering masterpiece that had preceded it before the interval.

Dvořák in 1882, the year before he completed
his Piano Trio No. 3.
Dvořák’s output somehow remains, by and large, towards the edges of the core classical/romantic chamber music repertoire compared with the works of Beethoven, Brahms and, in this locale anyway, Schubert, Schumann and Debussy. Perhaps it’s partly due to the sheer volume involved—in total around double the number of chamber works, large and small, compared with what Brahms, no slouch in this area, left us.

Robert Thies opened with a characteristically insightful reflection on the mentee/mentor relationship between Dvořák and Brahms, eight years his senior, who from 1874 onwards was profoundly influential in securing both material reward and widespread recognition for the younger composer’s genius. This artistic and public recognition in turn seems to have strengthened the confidence with which Dvořák drew together the singularly Czech aspects of his art with an increased mastery of classical forms.

Jessica Guideri.
Altogether Dvořák composed six piano trios, of which he destroyed the relatively early first two. The “official” Piano Trios Nos. 1 and 2 date from the mid-1870s, before his accession to international fame, while No. 4, the six-movement “Dumky” trio of 1890-91, represents a mature re-engagement with Slavic folk influences.

But Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 in F minor, Op. 65, B. 130, composed in 1883 in the full focus of Brahms-enabled celebrity, far outshines its two predecessors and one successor in scale, depth, and seriousness of utterance. As if striving to justify that new fame, he rose to achieve one of his very greatest works, which arguably stands in relation to the remainder of his chamber music output as his two greatest symphonies, Nos. 6 in D major, Op. 60 (1880) and 7 in D minor, Op. 70 (1884-85) loom amongst his orchestral works.

The first page of the manuscript of Dvořák's Piano Trio No. 3.

Chronologically between the two, and with an opus number symbolically mid-way between theirs, Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 manages to combine the architectural scale of the former symphony with the dramatic intensity of the latter. In the hands of The Thies Consort, the first movement Allegro ma non troppo in particular attained heights of steely grandeur, with a vibrant attack masking the exceptional spaciousness of their account, which stretched to a full quarter-hour (and with no marked repeat of its exposition to muddy, due to whether it is observed or not, the durational waters).

John Walz.
In addition to all the work’s other qualities, it has as much thematic immediacy as anything Dvořák wrote, and after the defiant, heroic lament from all three instruments that comprises the first subject group, John Walz’s cello could not have been more eloquent in its long initial statement of the second subject—an eloquence that foreshadowed his playing of the even more heartfelt main theme of the Poco adagio slow movement. 

In the preceding Allegretto grazioso scherzo, The Thies Consort nimbly negotiated the opening's tricky cross-rhythms—perfectly synchronized dancing triplets from Ms. Guidieri's violin and Mr. Walz's cello against vehemently articulated duple meter from Mr. Thies—and then in the finale they encompassed both a no-holds-barred attack on the obsessive dotted rhythms of the main Allegro con brio material and the brief tendernesses of the tranquillo interludes that punctuate it. 

In the astonishing coda, the alternation between these polar opposite moods becomes ever more abrupt and extreme, as if the music threatens to rip itself apart irrevocably, but somehow Dvořák manages to pull the movement together to an emphatically unanimous conclusion—all faithfully rendered by Robert Thies and his colleagues. After that, anything else would have been an anti-climax. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College, 8 p.m., Friday, December 3, 2021.
Mason Home Concert, Mar Vista, 6 p.m., Saturday, December 4, 2021. 
Images: The Thies Consort: David J Brown; Brahms and Dvořák: Wikimedia Commons; Robert Thies: artist website; Jessica Guideri: courtesy LA Chamber Orchestra; John Walz: Idyllwild Arts.

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