There was music in Pasadena before Alice Coleman presented her first chamber music program 100 years ago in a bank building on the corner of Raymond Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.
Minstrel shows came to town. Church choirs performed. Locals formed amateur singing societies. Down the road a ways, there even was a fledgling Los Angeles Symphony.
But serious chamber music began only when Coleman, who grew up in the city of the roses, decided that it had to be there. An accomplished pianist trained in Boston and Europe, she persuaded bemused city leaders, who knew nothing about chamber music, that it would be good for the community. She even corralled them into underwriting the concerts and guaranteeing the musicians' fees.
What Coleman was championing were string quartets, wind ensembles and other small groups, usually all-instrumental. Their standard repertory ranged from quartets by Mozart and Haydn to Schubert's "Trout" Quintet (string quartet plus piano) to Mendelssohn's Octet (two opposing string quartets) and beyond -- in short, some of the most beloved pieces in all classical music.
Little did Coleman know, however, that she was establishing what would become the oldest independent chamber music presenter in the country. Its nearest chronological cousin is the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, modeled on the Coleman and a frequent presenter of the same groups. But the New York organization was founded 20 years later.
Older than both is the University Musical Society, now in its 125th season. The UMS is not an independent outfit, though. It's linked to the University of Michigan and presents a wider range of programs -- recitals, orchestra concerts, dance, opera, jazz ensembles and plays -- than just chamber music events.
The Coleman will open its season today in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, with subscribers at a 25-year high of about 740. But the leader of the pack also faces new challenges.
"The whole environment has changed so dramatically culturally," says Kathy Freedland, executive director of the Coleman Chamber Music Assn. "There is such a wealth of different cultural experiences for people to choose from, Coleman now has challenges it didn't have back then."
Those include problems facing all serious music organizations, large and small: graying audiences, declining funding sources and competition from other recreational choices. Even audience support at its home base leaves much to be desired.
"Caltech students get free tickets," says the Coleman's president, Robert Winter. "But it hasn't been hopeful. There's a terribly small audience. It worries me that the young people are not getting into it."
"For kids, serious music is not out there in the background," says MaryAnn Bonino, founding artistic director of L.A.'s Chamber Music in Historic Sites series and its sponsor organization, the Da Camera Society.
"Kids grow up on Britney Spears and rap. It takes them a while to come around. The good news is that people are starting to pay attention. The really good news is, when we get them later on, they stay."
Clementina Fleshler, executive director of the Buffalo Chamber Music Society, isn't so bothered by the age issue.
"I've played in the Buffalo Philharmonic for 44 years, and I've been doing this for about 20," Fleshler says. "When I started, people said, 'What are we going to do? The audience has gray hairs.'
"Well, the audience today has gray hairs. People come to classical music in their mid-40s. The people who started listening 20 years ago have gray hairs now. But we just had a concert and we practically had to beat them away. That's chamber music."
One reason that chamber recitals typically draw smaller audiences than orchestra concerts may be because the music is more demanding.
"The greatest composers, when they were restricted to writing for a few instruments, came up with their best work," says Dean Corey, executive director of the Philharmonic Society of Orange County, which began co-sponsoring programs in 1992 with the long-lived Laguna Chamber Music Society.
For Corey, the problem isn't lack of audiences. It's the sheer number of groups and the limited venues for them. That's why the Philharmonic Society and its Laguna partner initiated the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Festival last year. (The second festival will take place April 18-25.)
"The festival was a chance to do something with this emerging young talent," Corey says. "The number and quality of tapes we had to choose from this year, it's amazing. It's almost a crime."
Some of those emerging groups have come out of the annual Coleman Chamber Music Competition, established in the mid-1940s as the second of the organization's three arms (the third is an outreach program for San Gabriel Valley schools, started in the early '50s).
"We try to include the winners in our series, which is one reason it's so hard to get into," Freedland says. "I wish we had 50 concerts a year. With six, it's a tough series to break into."
Young groups must create their own opportunities, says Margaret M. Lioi, chief executive of Chamber Music America, a national service organization with about 8,000 members.
"There are incredible musicians being trained in the world and certainly in our country, especially in our country," Lioi says. "But there are not enough performance opportunities to accommodate them. How many Coleman Chamber Music Societies are there?
"Fortunately, young groups are very good at creating their own opportunities by finding unusual places or untraditional spaces in which to perform -- alternative venues like churches and community centers and schools."
Still, financial pressures on chamber music performers and presenters alike are increasing. This year, the Coleman had to revive a strategy that its founder used in her day.
"We have started the idea of trying to get concerts underwritten," Freedland says. "A lot of our colleagues have been doing this for some years. This is something new for us."
"We've had very good luck this year," Winter adds. "But it's our 100th anniversary, so it's sort of special. I don't think that is going to last too long."
Relying on foundations has become less and less an option, even for such a well-regarded and established series as the Coleman.
This year, Winter says, "I wrote 37 letters to foundations, and only about half even answered me. Only one came through." He declines to name the foundation.
As that kind of support withers, organizations must try new strategies.
"We instituted a half-off price for age 29 and under -- kind of the reverse of the senior discount -- for educators and members of the artistic community," says Mary Lou Aleskie, president of the La Jolla Music Society. "We felt that unless we're enriching our local community, what's the point?
"We've just started doing that. But we did see a real change in the audience during Summerfest, where we started some of this discounting. We also doubled up the number of performances so we could do this kind of discount. We also saw a difference there."
Patrons who paid full price sometimes complained, she says.
"But as long as you're accommodating their wishes about exclusive VIP seating, that helps. I do believe our core constituency is concerned with creating youthful energy in the concert hall. People want to see this happen to make sure the halls are full."
Other ideas for attracting new audiences, Aleskie says, include "contextualized programming -- organizing programs with themes, or even theatricalizing programs with readings or video or lighting."
"You've also got a lot of interesting composers now who are experimenting with the notion of chamber music and bringing their own cultural influence to Western chamber music," she says. "People like Osvaldo Golijov, Tan Dun -- the new wave of American immigrants has invigorated this Western tradition. That also helps to keep the music alive."
And that squares with the definition of chamber music advocated by Chamber Music America.
"The official definition is 'one player to a part, generally without a conductor,' " Lioi says. "That includes Western classical music, jazz ensembles, music from other classical traditions and all kinds of contemporary music. The field is incredibly broad, and it is very vital."
Bonino of Music in Historic Sites is willing to program crossover events, but she wants to hold the line.
"We occasionally do jazz and world music and will probably be looking for more in the future," she says. "But mostly what we'll do will be the standard repertory, because somebody has to do it. People don't question museums' having works of art going back several centuries. It's our heritage, and you have to keep it alive."
Coleman has to strike a balance, Winter says.
"We're starting with Musica Antiqua Koln. That sounds like we're 'old fogies.' But that's wrong. They're the best Baroque ensemble in the world.
"Our membership is fairly elderly, and we've had some complaints when we have the Erdody Quartet, which plays the newest of the new. But there aren't many ensembles that are as first-rate as the ones we present."
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A sampling of other chamber music series
Southern California is home to a number of organizations that sponsor chamber music. Here is a selection of those groups, along with highlights of their current seasons.
Chamber Music in Historic Sites/
Da Camera Society
Dec. 7: Musica Humana Oxford, Immanuel Presbyterian
March 18: Brentano Quartet, former Bullocks Wilshire
May 2: Anonymous 4 (above), Westminster Presbyterian
Contact: (213) 477-2929. www.dacamera.org
Coleman Chamber Music
Beckman Auditorium, Caltech
Today: Musica Antiqua Koln (above). Music by Caldara, Pergolesi, Albinoni, Vivaldi
Jan. 25: 100th anniversary concert. Tokyo String Quartet; Joan Panetti, piano. Music by Smetana, Panetti, Schumann
April 4: Eroica Trio (above). Music by Beethoven, Shostakovich, Dvorak
Contact: (626) 793-4191. www.coleman.caltech.edu
Orange County Performing Arts Center
Tuesday: St. Lawrence String Quartet. Music by Haydn, R. Murray Schafer, Ravel
Contact: (714) 556-2787. www.ocpac.org
La Jolla Music Society
Jan. 25: Chiara String Quartet
Feb. 12: Juilliard String Quartet (above)
March 20: Brentano Quartet
Contact: (858) 459-3728. www.lajollamusicsociety.org
Feb. 23: Parisii Quartet
March 22: Flux Quartet (above)
April 12, 14, 19: Penderecki String Quartet
Contact: (323) 857-6151. www.lacma.org
Cal State Northridge, Cal State Long Beach, Beverly Hills High School
Dec. 8-10: Brahms Piano Trio
Feb. 16-18: Vanbrugh String Quartet
Contact: (323) 954-0404
Philharmonic Society of Orange County
Irvine Barclay Theatre
Monday: Vermeer String Quartet. Music by Shmuel Ashkenasi, Mathias Tacke, Richard Young, Marc Johnson
April 18-25: Second annual Laguna Beach Chamber Music Festival
Contact: (949) 553-2422. www.philharmonicsociety.org
Southwest Chamber Music
Colburn School, Norton Simon Museum
Feb. 21, 24: Music by Bruckner, Eric Zeisi
May 1, 4: Music by Subotnick, Kraft, Berio
Contact: (800) 726-7147. www.swmusic.org