Wednesday, February 21, 2024

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. 


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