Tuesday, May 10, 2022

At Mason House, Chamber Music Reads the Room

l-r: Steven Vanhauwaert, Alma Fernandez, Cécilia Tsan, Ambroise Aubrun.


Piano Quartet Masterpieces, Mason House, Mar Vista
John Stodder

For all but the most fortunate fans, most music we hear comes through a home stereo, car speakers or earbuds. No matter where it was recorded, we wrest it from that environment to ours. We might listen to the grandeur of Beethoven’s Ninth alone in bed, or an unaccompanied Bach violin sonata while staring through a windshield on the 405. It is easy to forget that before music became so portable, it was usually written for, and presented in, specific environments.

When we say “chamber music,” mostly we think of small ensembles, but the term describes the places where it was performed: not a “church, theater or public concert room,” according to the music historian Charles Burney, but instead a “palace chamber,” or in more egalitarian times, a private home.

A chamber is where over 50 classical music fans found ourselves on Saturday, April 9. Mason House, a small private home in Mar Vista, was remodeled a few years ago with the living and dining room combined into a performance space. Its most recent concert featured violinist Ambroise Aubrun, violist Alma Fernandez, cellist Cécilia Tsan and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, who played Mason House’s Yamaha C-7 concert grand, with special German hammers to give a softer sound, ideal for chamber music.

What makes chamber music special is intimacy: the ability to hear the slightest change in how the players attack their instruments; how they navigate melodic passages that expand from one instrument to two, three or more, and fit their playing styles together. Chamber music is up close and personal. This concert was memorable in part because we in the audience could feel we were taking the journeys of these works along with each of the wonderful players, hearing nuances that would have been inaudible in a larger hall or outdoors.

Todd Mason.
It was the first Mason House concert of the spring, the kind of serene afternoon when one would expect to hear a piece like Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1, the program’s planned opener, but to commemorate Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invasion, the concert began with Mason’s new arrangement of its National Anthem, whose title, “Shche ne vmerla Ukrainy i slava, i volia” translates to “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.” The anthem had the mournful yet proud sensibility suggested by those words, an anguish that Mason and the quartet conveyed nobly, given the powerful emotions this populist theme evokes today.

Mozart in 1782, three years
 before the composition
of his First Piano Quartet.
From a strictly musical perspective, the inclusion of this impactful piece at the top framed the concert as a study in contrasting emotions. To be sure, as David Brown’s fascinating introduction outlined, the concert was also a journey through the relatively unpopulated realm of the piano quartet, a rarer form than one might have guessed: the Mozart we heard was one of the first piano quartets to be published.

The Mozart performance exerted a steadying influence on audience emotions potentially inflamed by thoughts of war’s horrors. To be able to concentrate on musical details is therapeutic; like the string players’ bowing techniques and how they aligned them into one sound in unison passages, or the carefully modulated way in which Vanhauwaert would control his dynamics and presence within the ensemble.

Brown noted that contemporary audiences in 1785 were frustrated by this work’s “incomprehensible tintamarre of 4 instruments.” What I heard was delightfully comprehensible, and never dull. Mozart in his essence is the composer who presents his music as going in one direction—giving you every reason to think that’s where it’s going—and then plays beguiling games along the way to lead you to think something else might be happening, until you reach a point of surrendering any sense that you know where the piece was going—and then he takes you exactly where you expected in the first place, and you are grateful.

Alma Fernandez.
This quartet—a constant springtime cycling of sunshine, clouds and rain—also felt like a conversation between characters with such a close relationship they can finish each other’s thoughts. My scribbled notes are filled with laudatory comments on bowing, fingering, attacks on strings or keys: the touch of music, not just the sound. It felt brave of these musicians to allow us to hear so much of them, the miracle of their artistry being how the exposure only enhanced our enjoyment.

Mahler aged 18 in 1878, two
years after writing his Piano
The next piece, Mahler’s Piano Quartet Movement in A Minor, pulled us back into the maelstrom of emotions initially aroused by reflecting on Ukraine, then expertly diverted into a haze of joy by Mozart. Mahler’s quartet is notable, as Brown explained, for being the only work of chamber music he wrote that was not lost or destroyed. Mahler was a teen when he wrote it, but it contains the seeds of what his mature compositions are most known for: emotional turmoil, veering from joy to misery.

This piece walked a narrower path, from grief to melancholy to a kind of fearfulness that invoked our collective wartime moment. The quartet leaned powerfully into these emotions, their faces reflecting the mournful mood. It was a gift from the musicians to the audience to allow us to understand the depth of Mahler’s pain, to enable a catharsis. It is also a very different usage of the tools of chamber music, including the space itself and the intimacy it affords.

Brahms in 1886, the year of the Third Piano Quartet.
The first half’s dialectics of chamber music and emotion reached a synthesis after the interval, with Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor. David Brown called it one of Brahms’ “major statements,” suggesting it is in the same class as other major statements from Brahms with which audiences are more familiar. If you have access to a music library, this quartet is worth seeking out for that reason; to make sure it is in your mind’s Brahms canon alongside the concerti and the symphonies. Whereas Mozart took classical structures and gently subverted them to his own imaginative ends, Brahms created structures that could carry everything he wanted to say, and made us believe that structure had been there forever.

Cécilia Tsan.
The quartet was up to the challenge, taking us everywhere Brahms wanted us to go, from the slowly awakening moments of the opening, to the light-as-a-cat touch on the fascinating, crowd-pleasing scherzo, to the heavenly cello-piano duet at the opening of the third movement, a gorgeous, complex meditation on the topic of deep emotion, as opposed to Mahler’s deep dive into emotion itself. This was mature reflection, with all four musicians rising to the needed rhetorical heights and guiding us to Brahms’ compassionate conclusion.

Ambroise Aubrun and Steven Vanhauwaert.
The fourth movement felt like, among other things, a showcase for the quartet’s virtuosity as well as for the players' mutual respect. Violinist Aubrun and pianist Vanhauwaert were spotlit early, with violist Fernandez and cellist Tsan added to the mix as the composer developed and discovered what he wanted to say in this finale.

In this final movement, I recall feeling as if Papa Brahms had pulled his punches a bit. The first three movements had teed me up for the kind of climactic resolution of his concert hall classics. But the fourth movement seemed more… polite? And so it was. This “major statement” was not a symphony or concerto, but chamber music. We don’t want to alarm anyone. We’re home.


Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Images: The concert: Todd Mason; Mozart, Brahms: Wikimedia Commons; Mahler: Gustav Mahler website.

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