Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Shostakovich, Beethoven, and Griffes at Pacific Symphony

The Italian virtuoso Alessio Bax performs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3 with the Pacific
Symphony under guest conductor Andrew Litton.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

I did not consciously realize until after the event how young and indeed how remarkably close in age were all three composers—one 20th century American, now little remembered, and two familiar masters from the 19th and 20th centuries—when they wrote the works that were included by visiting guest conductor Andrew Litton in the Pacific Symphony’s most recent concert at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall.

Charles Tomlinson Grifffes.
As program opener, Maestro Litton chose neither a familiar repertoire overture nor one of the brief, celebratory explosions of orchestral fireworks that seem to appear with ever greater frequency from young and not-so-young contemporary composers on both sides of the border, but instead reached back just over a century to the work of Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920)—and for this listener at least, his selection couldn’t have been more welcome.

Griffes is one of the fascinating might-have-beens of American music. By the time he fell victim at only 35 to the “Spanish flu” pandemic, his compositional output already reflected a wide and fertile range of influences—German Romanticism from his early studies in Berlin, contemporary French music (his fascination with which had him dubbed the “American impressionist”), Japanese art, drama and music, and an array of literary influences from Goethe and Blake to John Masefield and Oscar Wilde in his choice of song texts.

Literature also imbued many of Griffes’ piano works including his Roman Sketches, Op. 7, all four of which drew their inspiration from the 1891 verse collection Sospiri di Roma by the Scot William Sharp, writing as “Fiona Macleod.” Griffes wrote Roman Sketches in 1915, and four years later orchestrated the first and last of the piano pieces, The White Peacock and Clouds. It was with the former that the concert began.

The soft rising and falling phrases on solo oboe and flute that begin the piece certainly earn the “impressionist” epithet, but interestingly, Griffes changed the initial marking from Languidamente in the piano version to Largamente in his orchestral score (with e molto rubato qualifying both). Maybe this implied a greater degree of purposefulness: if so, it was certainly borne out in Litton’s handling of the work, which proceeded with impressively controlled inevitability to the single powerful climax, sometimes taken to represent the full glorious opening out of the titular peacock’s tail.

Though quite economical in woodwind and brass scoring, Griffes lavishly enriched The White Peacock’s textures with two harps and celesta, and their almost constant presence in the aural picture glittered ravishingly in the Segerstrom’s marvelous acoustic. At just five minutes, the piece as ever left one wishing that there was more of it, but it was an effective and refreshing concert-opener.

Ludwig van Beethoven, c.1801.
The sense of controlled purpose in Litton’s interpretative style was certainly maintained in the Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37 of Beethoven. With each string section reduced by a couple of desks, the orchestral exposition was light on its feet but vigorous and lithe, and full of arrowed focus. It’s not hard to sense in this Concerto—which was probably completed some time in 1800—that Beethoven, still not quite 30, was filled with an awareness of boundless possibilities at the onset of the new century.

The pianist announces his presence with upward sweeping scales and emphatic restatement of the principal subject, already given plenty of attention in the orchestral exposition. This entry could hardly be more assertive of confidence and purpose, but there was no sense of rhetorical display for its own sake here or anywhere else in the Italian virtuoso Alessio Bax’s account of the first movement, where the feeling of through-composed unity extended even to the cadenza, which by some alchemy felt wholly integral to the argument rather than an occasion for everyone else to sit on their hands and wait.

Alessio Bax.
In the slow movement, Bax effortlessly unfurled the thickets of 64th-notes that Beethoven’s odd conjunction of a 3/8 time signature and Largo tempo marking necessitated, while the irresistible Rondo finale, with conductor, soloist, and orchestra all figuratively and very much literally on the same page, cemented the impression of a masterpiece that manages to combine both youthfulness and maturity.

The standing ovation brought an encore, but not as we usually know it, Jim. Bax shifted over on the piano stool to make room for Maestro Litton, and together they launched into a hilariously helter-skelter account of Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5 in F-sharp minor in its original piano four-hands form that elicited as much laughter as applause.

Alessio Bax and Andrew Litton share a moment in their encore performance of
Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No. 5.
During a pre-concert chat with host Alan Chapman and also in remarks from the podium immediately before the performance, Maestro Litton reminisced about having, at the age of 13, met Dmitri Shostakovich briefly in New York in 1973 (right), and then went on to outline the sociopolitical circumstances behind the composition of his Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, which filled the second half of the concert.

With Pravda’s withering denunciation of his recently staged 1936 opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District representing a literal threat to Shostakovich's life, and his radically original Fourth Symphony unperformed and indefinitely shelved, it’s remarkable that when he came to pen his “Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism,” as he dubbed the Fifth Symphony, the result was no feeble clone of some supposed Classical model but a powerful, personal, and in places deeply moving work that has become a repertoire staple worldwide ever since its rapturously received Leningrad premiere in November 1937, only two months after the composer turned 31 years of age.

Dmitri Shostakovich.
That it also clearly holds a special place for Maestro Litton was evident throughout the performance, masterly paced alike in the far-reaching dramatic arc of the first movement, the piquant, texturally inventive Allegretto (essentially a scherzo-and-trio), and the long-drawn, tragic intensity of the Largo—all delivered with individual and collective finesse, eloquence, and power by the Pacific Symphony at the very top of its considerable game.

Finest of all was the finale. In his remarks Litton had also recalled hearing—at the beginning of his appointment as Assistant Conductor for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington D.C.—its then music director Mstislav Rostropovich, who had been a close friend of the composer, rehearse this symphony. Knowing the finale in what were then typically fast and jubilantly triumphant performances, Litton had queried Rostropovich’s slow tempi and got the unequivocal response that this was how the music was meant to go.

His own performance left no doubt that this was a lesson well learned. The Allegro non troppo opening, taken at the marked quarter-note=88, became heavily menacing, and thereafter felt like an unseen but ever-present background threat to the more tranquil, even aspiring, expressive uplands of the movement’s central section. 

But when the oppressive slow motion bombast returned, it swept all before it until reaching colossal fff unisons on the timpani and bass drum—as apt an aural metaphor as you could imagine for Orwell’s chilling vision from 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.

This marvelous performance—inspiring and disturbing in equal measure—came just as the Pacific Symphony was announcing its upcoming 2024-2025 season—its 46th since its founding in 1979 and a particularly special one in that it marks the 35th year of Carl St. Clair’s tenure as Music Director.

There are far too many intriguing items across the 12 concerts to list here, but for this listener the standouts include Samuel Barber’s marvelous Symphony No. 1 on November 14-16 in an exceptionally rich program that also includes Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Brahms’ Violin Concerto; the startling juxtaposition on January 9-11, 2025 of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and Strauss’s Alpine Symphony (with “jaw-dropping visuals,” we are promised); and most enticing of all, a semi-staging of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on April 10-15, 2025.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday February 22, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performers: Doug Gifford; Griffes: New York Public Library; White peacock: Galleria Home Store; Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Shostakovich and Litton: Andrew Litton; Shostakovich: State Central M. Glinka Museum of Music, Moscow.

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Sunday, February 25, 2024

West Coast Premiere of “X” Triumphs


Philip Newton

REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


First opera by Black composer on Seattle Opera main stage 

The opening night of X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X proved a winner for composer Anthony Davis, librettist Thulani Davis, and story author Christopher Davis, all of whom were in the audience for the February 24 Seattle Opera premiere. The trifecta have created a work replete with tour-de-force roles for multiple singers, plenty of action, and high drama as high art. Themes of truth vs oppression were driven home by the dramatic music and the compelling libretto and story.

The trailblazing work is not new. It first premiered at New York City Opera in 1986 and was performed to huge success this past season at the Metropolitan Opera. These days it takes a village to create innovation in the opera world; the current revival of this co-production of Seattle Opera, Detroit Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Met, and Opera Omaha remains as revolutionary—both musically and politically—as it was at its outset.

That Malcolm X endures as a dynamic, yet puzzling and misunderstood, public figure is a testament to his continued significance in modern society. To this day, opinions about him amongst people of all races vary wildly. All the more reason why an opera chronicling his life and times is more relevant than ever.

Rex Walker, Leah Hawkins
Philip Newton
Two major figures, both of them tour-de-force roles, stand out from the cast. Not surprisingly Kenneth Kellogg in the title role rises to the top. Omnipresent as a character, from the Malcolm of his childhood, played with remarkable panache by Rex Walker in his SO debut, and throughout the work, the demands of the role are huge, and Kellogg proved worthy of the task. His sizable voice projected to great effect over the large orchestration, and his dramatic portrayal of the enigmatic leader was convincing in all of its permutations. One never tired of watching him.

As Elijah Muhammad, Joshua Stewart stood out from the very first for his impressive clarion vocality. The voice sounded glorious in all registers, and especially in the top range, where the tessitura was challenging.

Joshua Stewart
Philip Newton
On the female side of the ledger, debuting artists Leah Hawkins and Ronnita Miller gave striking performances. As Malcolm’s mother Louise, Hawkins started off the evening with an arduous aria that demanded virtuosity in every range, from the profound bottom notes to the extreme high ones. She also was effective as Malcolm’s wife Betty. Miller’s Wagnerian instrument was imposing in the roles of Ella and the Queen Mother. Joshua Conyers was outstanding as Malcolm’s brother Reginald.

Robert O’Hara’s stage direction, along with debuting associates Melanie Bacaling and Nicholas Polonio, demonstrated a powerful vision of the protagonist’s social identity that was consistent and balanced in its historical view yet maintained the radical intensity of the subject matter. All of the characters integrated with each other in the multiple vignettes as true, living beings in a momentous episode of our past. Every scene connected seamlessly with the next, providing a context that made the viewer feel as if they were witnessing events in real time.

The bold set designs of Clint Ramos and his associate Diggle grabbed the attention from the beginning. Part Star Trek, part temple ministry of both past and future, the visuals were arresting and skillfully integrated into the story and action. The lighting designs and projections of Alex Janchill and Yee Eun Nam, both in their SO debuts, with assistance from debuting designer Paige Seber, were nothing short of dazzling. The eye-catching amalgamation of lighting and projections made the drama stand out in every scene.

Philip Newton
The chorus ensemble of friends and others were also stars of the show. Appearing in a variety of ways in multiple scenes, these outstanding singers negotiated the many roles required of them with memorable brilliance. The Greek chorus of dancers, inventively choreographed by Rickey Tripp and Arianne Meneses in their SO debuts, provided a throughline of activity that heightened the many contrasting dramatic moments.

Philip Newton

Sunny Martini

Davis’s music, from the jazz-inflected overture to the poignant arias and vibrant choruses, was mesmerizing. The urgency of the narrative was vividly portrayed in each moment, whether action driven or meditative. His score was masterfully done: creative and innovative, with an improvising ensemble embedded within, providing intriguing hints of his later operas to come.

Conductor Kazem Abdullah maintained exceptional control of the orchestra with sensitivity and clarity of movement, in a score that contained huge contrasts in style from scene to scene. Great demands were made on the orchestra, especially the extensive trumpet solos which were admirably executed, and Abdullah made sure the appropriate voices stood out when needed.

X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X is without doubt a definitive event for Seattle Opera, and worth experiencing in all of its many extraordinary aspects. 

Kenneth Kellogg
Sunny Martini

Photo credits: Phillip Newton, Sunny Martini

 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, February 23, 2024

Dvořák, Mussorgsky/Ravel, Price, and Preu at Long Beach

Cécilia Tsan and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra under Eckart Preu perform Antonín Dvořák's Cello Concerto.


Long Beach Symphony, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach

Dvořák in 1893.
Snatching a few days’ respite between the Southern Californian rainstorms, the largest Long Beach Symphony audience in a long while filled the Terrace Theater on the third Saturday of February for a concert in which the centerpiece account of Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191 by the LBSO's Principal Cellist Cécilia Tsan and the orchestra under its Music Director Eckart Preu fully realized and projected those qualities that make it arguably the greatest of all works in its particular genre.

Commemorative plaque on the
site of Dvořák’s NYC residence.
Although the Cello Concerto was not Dvořák’s last major composition—five symphonic poems and four operas were to follow in the nine years left to him after its completion at New York in 1895—its magisterial symphonic scale and structural mastery, together with a memorably haunting beauty and unprecedented exploration of the cello’s expressive potential as a concerto solo instrument, certainly would have made it a triumphant conclusion to his career had that actually been the case.

Maestro Preu launched the extensive orchestral exposition of the Allegro first movement with uncompromising boldness, the pervasive principal motif of a rising and then falling 3rd ringing out like a minatory warning and then, in its full fortissimo flowering, wholly living up to Dvořák’s Grandioso marking, where the tuba (a very rare instrumental presence in a 19th century concerto) added its singular tombstone heft to the massive chord’s foundations.

More than usual did this opening recall not so much the “New World” Symphony, written only a couple of years previously, but rather the soundworld of Dvořák’s earlier and more dramatically concentrated Symphony No. 7, though when the second subject melody finally arrived—immaculately intoned here by principal horn Melia Badalian—its molto espressivo added the element of heartfelt reverie that belongs to this Concerto alone.

Another grandiose tutti ensues and then winds down gradually to clear the way for the cello’s entry. Given as always the proviso that the Terrace Theater’s acoustic tends to drain some of the impact of any string soloist, Ms. Tsan demonstrated from her first statement of the principal motif that she “owns” this Concerto: carefully observant of all the instructions with which Dvořák surrounds the solo entry—forte, risoluto, and Quasi improvisando—she launched her long journey with fervent and infectious spontaneity.

Antonín Dvořák (right) with family
and friends in New York, 1893.
Indeed, this account of the Cello Concerto made the best imaginable case for the view that a performance by a gifted orchestra principal in complete accord with their respected and loved colleagues can be at least as satisfying as that of any visiting soloist, however starry, and in this particular instance Ms. Tsan has openly averred that this particular work more than any other originally inspired her to pursue her career as a cellist.

After the wide-ranging drama of the first movement, the Adagio ma non troppo was as warmly expressive as anyone could wish, without any of the tendency to wallow in sentiment that can afflict some performances (the whole work came in at a trim 40 minutes). Most impressive of all was the Finale, which Maestro Preu skilfully navigated from bold re-awakening after the slow movement’s long dying fall to a perfectly integrated handling of the remarkable coda.

Though Dvořák completed the Cello Concerto's initial version in New York over winter 1894-95—with news of the serious illness of his much-loved sister-in-law Josefina Kounicová already coloring its content and sensibility—after his return home in April 1895 and then Josefina’s death in the following month he inserted into the coda some 60 new measures of quietly autumnal music, as if surveying and bidding farewell to the Concerto's long journey from its trenchant opening, before rousing itself to the ff conclusion. The remarkable unanimity between Ms. Tsan and the LBSO under Preu’s baton gave this extended leave-taking a time-stopping raptness, underlining with what sureness Dvořák in his final revision had further refined and deepened what was already a masterpiece.

Florence Price.
The concert had begun with Florence Price’s Concert Overture No. 2, written in 1943, but only rediscovered in 2009 amongst the trove of many of her once-lost works unearthed in St. Anne, Illinois at her former summer home, by then derelict.

The Concert Overture No. 2's B minor tonality and overall mood of nostalgic longing made it an appropriate opener to precede the Cello Concerto, but as a not notably inventive meditation on the spirituals “Go Down Moses,” “Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” the Overture seemed over-extended at nearly a quarter-hour.

Eckart Preu and
Hans Peter Preu.
The sole work programmed for the second half was Maurice Ravel’s celebrated orchestration of Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, enhanced on this occasion by the projection of Viktor Hartmann’s pictures on a screen above the orchestra. Before this, however, from the podium Maestro Preu announced that there would be an extra surprise item.

His elder brother, the composer and arranger Hans Peter Preu, was visiting from Germany, and Eckart had invited him to write a piece for this concert, given the availability of the large forces required for Mussorgsky's Pictures and suggesting that a comparable treatment of a visual subject would be appropriate.

The result was The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed with the Sun, inspired by William Blake’s watercolor illustration (left) for the Book of Revelation.

Hans Peter Preu’s musical depiction really did justice to the weirdness of Blake's vision, and the LBSO responded whole-heartedly to his five minutes of apocalyptic orchestral mayhem—full of almost Messiaenic gong-and-gamelan sonorities—under the direction of the composer and with the Lovecraftian figure of the Dragon looming over them from the screen above. The audience, too, enthusiastically applauded what for many must have been an unexpectedly Modernist score.

Pictures at an Exhibition has been orchestrated by so many other people besides Ravel that, given how often the latter's arrangement appears on concert programs, it would be good once in a while to hear one of those different alternatives—my money would be on Sir Henry Wood’s even more opulent take on the piece, while any planner looking for a slightly shorter item could well think about Stokowski’s version, which omits two of the Pictures

Modest Mussorgsky (left); Maurice Ravel (right).
Nevertheless, Mussorgsky/ Ravel it was and of course the combination of the former’s vividly original responses to his friend Hartmann’s drawings and watercolors and Ravel’s boundless resource of orchestral color once again beguiled and thrilled, from the latter’s subtly differing treatments of the opening Promenade as it recurs between the first few images to the signal grandeur of X The Great Gate of Kiev. 

Viktor Hartmann's design for the
Bogatyr Gates at Kiev (Kyiv).
And as we listened from I Gnomus and II The Old Castle through to that conclusion so we were also able to see projected, in some cases, the definitively identified original images that inspired the music (e.g. The Great Gate of Kiev (left) and V The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks (below)), and in others an imaginative selection from Hartmann’s surviving output of artworks that made a plausible accompaniment to the music.

The last time I heard the Mussorgsky/ Ravel Pictures live was by no lesser forces than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Riccardo Muti (reviewed here), but by comparison the Long Beach Symphony and Maestro Preu were by no means outshone. The near-capacity audience responded appropriately on its feet, and overall this quite splendid concert made one look forward even more to the two remaining blockbuster programs in the LBSO’s 2023-24 season: The Brahms German Requiem preceded by an orchestral piece from the contemporary Frenchman Guillaume Connesson and Vaughan Williams’ delectable Serenade to Music on March 9; and Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on June 1: will it really work with those two pieces in that order? We’ll see!


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Beverly O'Neill Performing Arts Center, Long Beach, Saturday, February 17, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Dvořák portrait, Florence Price, Blake’s Great Red Dragon, Hartmann’s Plan for a City Gate: Wikimedia Commons; Dvořák plaque: Yelp; Dvořák family: Czech National Museum; Mussorgsky & Ravel: Courtesy St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

USC Prizewinning String Quartet Debut at Second Sunday

The Marzipan Quartet: l-r Veronika Manchur, Agatha Blevin, Gloria Choi, Joseph Kim.


Marzipan Quartet, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Classical Crossroads Inc. rewards chamber music aficianados here in the South Bay not only with many programs by well-known locally-based performers and distinguished guests from Europe and elsewhere, but also from new young artists of exceptional merit. The latest of these to be debuted in the “Second Sundays at Two” series (actually in this instance the third Sunday in February, for scheduling reasons) were four members of USC Thornton School of Music’s graduate program, and collectively the winner of USC’s 2023 Ofiesh Quartet Competition.

The Marzipan Quartet (Veronika Manchur and Agatha Blevin, violins; Gloria Choi, viola; Joseph Kim, cello) presented two string quartets, written not quite a century apart, from Joseph Haydn and Antonín Dvořák—masters of the medium in the autumn of their respective composing careers but still at the height of their powers. First up was Haydn’s String Quartet No. 62 in C Major (Kaiserquartett), Op. 76 No. 3, Hob. III:77, written like its five companion works of that opus in 1796-97, when Haydn was around 65.

From its outset, the Marzipans’ account of the Allegro first movement (with exposition repeat observed) was sprightly, rhythmically crisp, and responsive to Haydn’s rapid shifts in dynamic and texture, with Ms. Choi and Mr. Kim seeming to particularly relish the drone effect in the bass with which Haydn varies and enriches the recapitulation.

Joseph Haydn.
In the Poco adagio slow movement, the initial statement of the “Emperor” theme—derived from Haydn’s anthem for Emperor Francis II that later became the German national anthem—was as serene and prayerful as its marking and piano dynamic implied, while in the succeeding four variations each player in turn seized the various expressive opportunities that Haydn’s careful allotting of prominence supplies.

The Menuetto, distinctly robust in the hands of the Marzipan Quartet, was effectively contrasted with the withdrawn and thoughtful Trio, and followed by a finale as vigorous as its Presto marking required. Throughout the performance the players’ attention to each other—as close as many a far more seasoned ensemble—paid dividends in elucidating Haydn’s inexhaustible textural variety and contrapuntal inventiveness.

It was a happy coincidence to be able to hear live, just one day after a fine performance of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor at Long Beach Symphony (reviewed here), another of his “American” works, the String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96, B.179. Dvořák was Director of the National Conservatory in New York City from 1892 to 1895, and he wrote this quartet over just 16 days during his 1893 summer vacation at a Czech community in Spillville, Iowa.

In a letter he averred “… I wanted to write something for once that was very melodious and straightforward, and dear Papa Haydn kept appearing before my eyes, and that is why it all turned out so simply. And it’s good that it did.” Whether or not this “American” Quartet has specific influences or actual quotations from native American or African-American music has been argued inconclusively, but about its immediacy and memorability there is no doubt, and the Marzipan Quartet did it proud.

Dvořák in New York in 1893.
Ms. Manchur and Ms. Blevin gave the first movement’s tremolando opening just the right blend of slight hesitancy and hushed anticipation, out of which strode the mezzoforte main theme, at once forthright and measured in pace, on Ms. Choi’s viola. Another plus point was the inclusion of the oft-omitted exposition repeat—who would not want a second chance to hear such delectable music?

For all the “American” Quartet’s pervasive melodic appeal, it rarely proceeds as a simplistic “tune + accompaniment.” In this outwardly “straightforward” work Dvořák’s four-part writing is as inventive and resourceful as ever, and the Marzipans’ attentiveness revealed as many inner textural delights as it did surface beauties.

In all of chamber music literature, is there a single movement more devastatingly single-minded in its emotional directness than this quartet’s miraculous Lento? I can’t think of one, and in their performance the Marzipan Quartet faultlessly traced its seamless melodic arc, the standout amongst standouts perhaps being the cello’s restatement of the main theme, with Mr. Kim’s instrument soaring like a bird in flight through its highest register.

For all its Molto vivace marking, the scherzo is somewhat subdued in effect, its trio section—unmarked as such—being a minor-key variant of the main scherzo motif. However, there is nothing equivocal about the Finale, pervaded by an infectious ostinato staccato rhythm sometimes thought to reflect Dvořák’s well-attested love of trains. Certainly, this movement had plenty of locomotive energy in the Marzipans’ hands, though not neglecting the reflective contrast of its brief Meno mosso intercalations.

All in all, this was a most impressive debut by four splendid musicians, but you don't have to take my word for it. If you click here, you can enjoy Classical Crossroads' recording of the recital's livestreamed transmission. Let's hope the Marzipan Quartet make many more local appearances.


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, February 18, 2024, 2.00 p.m. 
Images: The performance: Classical Crossroads; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Dvořák:

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The House That Music Built

Todd Mason (second left) with members of the Los Angeles Wind Sextet (l-r: Susan Greenberg, flute; Jennifer Johnson Cullinan, oboe; Judith Farmer, bassoon; Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano; Sara Bach, horn; Sergio Coehlo, clarinet)—Mason Concert, Saturday, March 5, 2022.


This month marks 10 years for our home chamber music series in West LA called Mason Concerts, featuring many of the best classical musicians in Southern California. The occasion inspired me to take a moment and look back—and the fact is that we have gone far beyond what we even imagined a decade ago. This series has been an extraordinary journey of drama, dreams, hard work... and the most wonderful music. And now it sometimes feels like I have a tiger by the tail, because so many amazing musicians and guests want to participate in upcoming seasons.

Part of the blueprint for remodeling Mason House.
Almost my whole life has been with music, beginning in the 3rd grade with my first composition and then starting a chamber orchestra in high school while I studied composition at USC. Then, in the 1980s, I graduated from Juilliard as a composer after studying with Elliott Carter, so chamber music of course was in my bones.

One of the reasons my late wife, Robin, and I started this series was because we had been to many chamber concerts in small halls and some homes and always felt that the settings could be improved: by having better acoustics and, perhaps, made more intimate, with less distance between musicians and audience. So often a kind of invisible "glass wall" separates them, and they never actually feel in the presence and spirit of each other. There is often a lack of what I call “circular energy.”

To enhance the experience, we also wanted to add engaging preconcert talks and encourage the musicians say a few things about the music and their approach to performing; also maybe, talk to our audience members afterward, and with good food as well. We wanted each concert to be a complete evening—an event—not just an hour of music.

Getting it done!

All good. That was the easy part. But we needed a good space. That was the hard part! However, we were in any case looking to remodel our old Mar Vista house, so we upped the ante and decided to make the main living room into a larger, acoustically excellent, concert room, designed specifically for chamber music. We researched this a lot and found special materials to block outside noise, and even hired an acoustician to talk to the architect about the best interior angles.

We used special materials on the inside to achieve a very pleasant reverberation, almost as if guests could feel that they were part of the group that was performing. We even chose a special kind of wood called Alder (above)—often used in larger concert halls for a warm sound—for the walls and the ceiling, with a special harder oak for the floors.

Our first official event, on February 16, 2014, was “A Concert of Firsts” (poster, right). That was the debut concert for the newly-formed Argus Quartet, who went on to perform all over the country. They were, and are, a superb ensemble. So, after the excitement of that first concert someone asked “what’s next in your series?” Actually, I had no idea at the time, so we invited the Argus back and went on from there...

After a few more concerts with some of the graduates from the impressive USC Thornton School of Music, USC wrote an article about our series—A Musical Home Away From Home—and then there was no turning back. More groups contacted me and more guests wanted to experience this new series.

Sadly, my wonderful wife of 33 years lost her battle with cancer in 2015 so I obviously couldn’t continue having concerts at our home and even considered stopping the series. And, besides, how could I produce those concerts by myself? Robin had been a major force in getting it all going with her inextinguishable enthusiasm. But the most amazing thing happened: many musicians encouraged me to continue, even helping with PR and finding more players. A family friend stepped in and said she’d handle the food and even some neighbors began to help with time and contributions—running a good series requires lots of planning and often additional funding to pull off successfully. So, I ultimately was able to continue and the series has now become very successful indeed.

Ten years' achievement

Diana Wade, violist of the early Argus Quartet talking about Haydn in 2016.

The last decade has seen some 50 concerts, featuring many great 19th century masterpieces, lesser-known hidden gems, lots of 20th century music, and many new works too, including one experimental piece that added clothes pins to some of the piano strings and had rolling steel balls on the floor. And of course many of my own works have been featured, which has been invaluable to me as an active composer. In addition to the regular listed series, we’ve had special video screenings of some of my larger works for full orchestra, like my recent Violin Concerto with the Dutch virtuoso Tosca Opdam, and my new choral/orchestral work, Lux Aeterna.

Our long-time family friend, Ethel Phipps (right), deserves a very special mention here. She has contributed all the wonderful food—in copious quantities—for this series for the entire 10 years! There's always a delicious "main course" with abundant hors d’oeuvres, and desserts. She is a big part of what makes these concerts “events.”

I can’t say enough about how perfect Los Angeles is for all this, with so many world-class studio musicians and also superb music schools like UCLA, USC, and Colburn. LA's general musical DNA has attracted many greats over the years, like Stravinsky and Heifetz, not to mention the most famous film composers of all time, and we have truly great symphony orchestras. All this has given us one of the best traditions and current pools of classical musicians anywhere in the world.

In the last 10 years, we’ve featured top string quartets like the Lyris and the Zelter; many other leading ensembles such as the LA Brass Quintet, Duo Novae (Ambroise Aubrun and Kate Hamilton), the LA Piano Sextet, and the SAKURA Cello Quintet; distinguished vocal soloists like LA Opera’s Anna Schubert; and top pianists—Gloria Cheng, Steven Vanhauwaert and Vicki Ray, among others. We've hosted the principal cellists of the LA Opera Orchestra (John Walz), the LA Master Chorale and Long Beach Symphony (Cécilia Tsan), and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra (Dennis Karmazyn); as well as the Concertmasters of the LA Opera Orchestra, Roberto Cani, and LA Philharmonic, Martin Chalifour; and many other leading members of the LAPO and LBSO.

By design we can only accommodate about 50 guests, but we’ve presented works ambitious enough for any house series including Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, Schubert's Trout Quintet, and Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht with video projection accompanying the six string players. Our terrific preconcert speakers regularly include the LA Phil’s Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano and David J. Brown (LA Opus). One person said after the Trout Quintet, “I’ve heard that piece many times, but I think this is the only time I have really heard it, in a way, for the very first time.

Now and to come

This has become a series that neither I nor Robin really could have imagined, and the most recent concert was no exception. Eva Schaumkell and Vijay Venkatesh as the Vieness Piano Duo (above) gave—almost 10 years to the day after the Argus Quartet—one of the most enjoyable concerts to date.

Their version of Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite was elegant and colorful, Eva Schaumkell played Rachmaninoff’s Moments Musicaux with such tenderness, and Vijay Venkatesh’s powerful rendition of the fiendishly difficult Bach-Busoni Chaconne in D minor filled the room with the brilliant sonorities of our Yamaha C7 (above right) and rattled the triple-paned windows! One guest remarked “I’ve never heard a piano sound that colorful and powerful, almost like a full orchestra.”

But the highlight of the evening was their performance of Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals, with Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano (left) reading the witty narration written by Ogden Nash in about seven different character voices, each one funnier than the last. This was such a popular concert that we have decided to do a repeat performance of it in our next season, which will run from January to May 2025. We already have a stellar line-up of top groups scheduled to appear in what will be our 11th season...

Thank you!

So I’m eternally thankful for all the help and encouragement I’ve received over the last 10 years, not to mention the world-class music that we’ve presented in ways that are so intimate and emotionally powerful. I must make a special mention of cellist Cécilia Tsan (below right), who in addition to her orchestra Principal roles noted above is also the Musical Director of Mount Wilson’s terrific Concerts in the Dome series. She has been one of our most popular musicians, has helped organize several concerts, and has devotedly premiered several of my own compositions!

l-r: LAPO Concertmaster Martin Chalifour,
Victor de Almeida, Todd Mason, Dr. Kristi
Brown-Montesano, Cécilia Tsan, Rachel Mellis.
I also want to add a special thanks to LA Opus for publishing this article and for so beautifully covering many of our concerts: specifically Rodney Punt (owner), and David J. Brown (managing editor) and John Stodder Jr. for many superbly written reviews.

These have been so helpful in getting the word out so that even more people can experience and enjoy what classical chamber music is really all about—connecting people with the great composers’ deepest artistic expressions in the here and now, eliminating the barriers of distance and time. Because when music does its magic, it’s truly an elevating experience for all, connecting us to the most profound and exalted emotions we are capable of.