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.

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