Tuesday, June 6, 2023

A Summer Serenade to End Mason House's 2023 Season

The final Mason House concert of 2023 in full swing.


Martin Chalifour and Friends play Beethoven, Mason, and Mozart at Mason House

This was a straightforward embrace of what is best about music—the way it can ornament your life with ineffable beauty; relax, comfort, guide, and amuse you; arouse empathy, tension and resolution. Music can also challenge or dare you, but this was less in evidence on Saturday, May 20. The sounds were comforting, welcoming and a little nostalgic, making regular attendees already feel like six months is too long to wait for these enchanting chamber concerts to return.

Some of us depend on the Mason House concert series to hear chamber music in an ideal setting—a 21st century version of the kinds of spaces for which it was designed and named—rooms, not concert halls. 

Whereas attending a great concert in a spacious, resonant concert hall is somewhat like a cathedral service—the audience, mostly of strangers, for a promised transformational experience, and the performers and their music at the center of your consciousness—to get to this concert I parked my car two doors down, walked past a buffet table with Caesar salad, chili and Fritos, waved at some friends and hugged others, then found a chair to hear music for flute, violin, viola and cello played about 15 feet away from me by musicians at least two of whom I had met and chatted with at prior concerts.

Though Mason House does share a few features with a concert hall—its high ceiling and its having been remodeled to optimize acoustical performance—mostly it feels like what it is, a comfortable house in an old West LA neighborhood. The music that fits such a place has a different relationship to our lives: less mystique than that concert hall, but more personal connection: moments in this room are to be savored.

Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano expounding the evening's program.

Pre-concert speaker, Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano, set the mood through her clever, nuanced framing of the two 18th century pieces we were to hear, Beethoven's String Trio No. 2 in D major, Op. 8, (1797), and the Flute Quartet No.1 in D Major, K. 285 (1777) of Mozart. She brought them to life in an unexpected way: each the result of a transaction in which considerations were exchanged for the privilege of possessing—to the extent that anyone can—beautiful works of musical art by geniuses. Art and commerce: a perfect subliminal theme for a concert in the heart of movieland.

Notably, Beethoven called his trio a "serenade," bringing to mind, as Dr. Brown-Montesano pointed out, a young man singing outside the window of his love. But more broadly, a serenade gives honor or tribute, such as to welcome a VIP to your prestigious estate, and she helped those of us with vivid imaginations conjure a vision of people arrayed in frilly shirts, breeches and wigs; thus contextualizing the music as created to suit swanky occasions. It wasn’t too far from what we at Mason House were experiencing, albeit more casually attired. Here, the honorees were our musicians: violinist (and LA Philharmonic Concertmaster) Martin Chalifour, flutist Rachel Mellis, violist Victor de Almeida, and cellist Cécilia Tsan.

For the Mozart Flute Quartet, Dr. Brown-Montesano revealed the bargaining involved. The 21-year-old composer, frustrated at having to live with his mother and wanting more freedom, was looking for increased paying work. A wealthy surgeon employed by the colossal (but dying) Dutch East India Company commissioned the quartet we heard, and several others. He loved and played the flute, but his zeal was not infectious—it is an instrument, Mozart wrote, that he “cannot bear.” Perhaps for that reason, he didn’t finish the commission, but this quartet betrays no disdain for the instrument. Considered one of Mozart’s early masterpieces, it demonstrated Mellis’ extraordinary facility with the flute, and her beautiful tone.

Dr. Brown-Montesano also referenced Beethoven’s favoring of passion over precision, improvisation over strict adherence to a score, and willingness to risk chaos to capture genuine inspiration. She showed how his piece, like many of the Classical era, featured doorways into improvisation, such as the theme-and-variation form, as opportunities for the musician to play from the heart, show off technique, and create a personal bond with the audience. Nowadays works like these are played as the score indicates, with little room for improvisation like jazz or bluegrass—but it adds to the experience of this music to know that improvisation was part of its DNA. Both pieces evoke the feeling of musicians making discoveries, trying things out, expressing musical ideas as they unfold beneath their fingers.

l-r: Martin Chalifour, Victor de Almeida, Cécilia Tsan, Rachel Mellis.

In the Beethoven, Martin Chalifour led the way from the first movement's start, a brief "hello" from the trio that invoked the arrival of pure music, with no ideas to convey except one: to leave the world behind for a few moments of sheer beauty. Once we’d passed into that zone, each of the succession of movements evoked a different mood; regret and isolation in Chalifour’s violin solos of the Adagio; energetic dancing in the Menuetto; tears and laments in the fourth movement, broken up by brief jolts of energy, as if shaking the music out of its sadness. Through most of this piece, Chalifour’s violin drew the attention, but with intuitive, rock-solid support from de Almeida and Tsan throughout. In that shifty fourth movement, for example, they had to toggle between two tempi and two modes of accompaniment, and did so faultlessly.

The Beethoven was followed by host Todd Mason’s own Trio for Flute, Violin and Cello—quite a contrast, not just to the sounds of Beethoven, but also to the context in which it and the Mozart were written. For the first two movements, this was not a piece with a lead instrument calling the tune for the ensemble, but rather a "meeting at the crossroads" for three players contributing equally, as in the first movement's constantly unfolding, seemingly ever-rising melody. Tsan breezed through several fast and challenging octatonic scales, reminiscent of Bartók.

The first movement was also about contrasting textures, with the string players sometimes scratching out their notes ferociously, leaving just enough sonic space for Mellis’ flute to play in unison with them, but with an incongruously angelic tone, like cool clean water flowing over burning sand. 

Mason’s second movement took a step back, slowed down, and kept the players’ raw power in check as it explored what seemed to be dark, sacred spaces. Tsan’s cello opened this movement, establishing an eerie, Arctic mood for what felt like the emotional heart of the piece. Once again, the writing was for a balanced ensemble, no leaders or followers, as if the composer was trying to say as much as he could with the fewest instruments. 

The players with Todd Mason and Dr. Brown-Montesano.
Perfectly propelled by Tsan's cello, the Presto finale took a different direction, calling back to the Classical style, or perhaps more a nod to Stravinsky's neo-classicism. Rachel Mellis played the lead role in this brief but thrilling movement, showing amazing control in delivering and phrasing Mason’s successive long melodic lines.

For a composer averse to the flute, Mozart has given generations of flutists some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful sounds to play, notably in this Flute Quartet No.1. Chalifour and Tsan knew just how to frame the space Mellis needed to display her cheerful virtuosity. She continued to hold our attention in the somber, gorgeous Adagio, against a hushed pizzicato accompaniment. In the third movement, the spotlight was shared more with her companions in a racing Rondeau that seemed devised to make everyone discard their shoes to run on the lawn in celebration of summer’s arrival.

Here in LA, our stormy winter has been followed by a chilly, cloud-laden spring, but Mozart charmed away the gloom, inviting one and all to a perfect summer weekend. The arrival of summer means that Mason House goes dark as a chamber music venue until 2024. I’ve been lucky enough to attend all concerts this season, each with a different character and takeaway. Given the fair amount of gravitas running through most of the previous ones, this felt like the refreshing chaser.

However... please note that there is an EXTRA EVENT upcoming at Mason House: a deep-dive illustrated talk by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano on arguably the world's most famous symphony, Beethoven's Fifth—full details here.


Mason House Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, May 20, 2023.
Images: Performance photos: Todd Mason.

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