Essential Arts: L.A. isn’t known for its booming chamber music scene — but it should be
Rain has endowed Los Angeles and its environs lately with an explosion of verdant green, and, as if on cue, the arts scene this early February is now equally luxuriant. I’m Mark Swed, The Times’ classical music critic filling in for the Times arts and design columnist Carolina Miranda and smelling the roses to be found in our blossoming arts garden.
Chamber music under the L.A. radar
The bonanza includes an active chamber music scene, which I’ve been taking in via recent concerts and recordings. Chamber music is something L.A. is not generally known for. It’s our secret. The fact is, any history of L.A. and Hollywood leaves out a lot if it doesn’t uncover just how important chamber music has been to our arts and society. That especially includes our movies.
For decades, studio musicians have loved nothing more than to gather for intimate music making, which is to say, play chamber music. Deals over the years have been made at such soirées. Young film and jazz protégées like André Previn played with worshipful heavyweights like violinist Joseph Szigeti, whom Previn considered one of his most important mentors. At the other extreme, when Albert Einstein was in residence at Caltech in the 1930s, the famed physicist and amateur violinist liked nothing better than to jam with the renowned pianist Artur Schnabel.
The Hollywood String Quartet, composed of golden age studio musicians who included violinist and conductor Felix Slatkin and cellist Eleanor Aller (Leonard Slatkin’s parents), was, during its brief and part-time existence in the 1950s, one of the world’s greatest string quartets. It made historic recordings of Beethoven, Schubert and Schoenberg when not backing Frank Sinatra from time to time.
Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky, the legendary Lithuanian violinist and beloved Ukrainian cellist, respectively, taught at USC, where they gave a chamber music series and made famed recordings. When pianist Arthur Rubinstein, another local, joined them, they were dubbed the “Million Dollar” trio.
All over town, all sorts of players gathered. The Los Angeles Philharmonic is including, as part of its Rachmaninoff festival featuring Yuja Wang and Gustavo Dudamel this weekend and next at Walt Disney Concert Hall, special programs in Beverly Hills that explore the intersection between the Russian composer and his many other stellar neighbors.
Even so, appearances by two famed and very Old World string quartets last month hardly seemed to have Hollywood on their minds when they showed up for local concerts last month. The Takács Quartet, which performed at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, was founded in 1975 by students at the Music Academy in Budapest. Two days later, the Prazák Quartet — founded in 1974 by students at the Prague Conservatory — appeared at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium.
Both Eastern European capitals in the mid-’70s gloomy were cities under Soviet rule. Chamber music was a reprieve, and sometimes a subversive one. Both quartets have survived and thrived for nearly half a century, replenished by new players. Each, though, retains one original player, cellist András Fejér in the Takács and violist Josef Kluson in the Prazak. Takács, which now resides at the University of Colorado in Boulder, has two sensational young Americans — violinist Harumi Rhodes and violist Richard O’Neill — who help give it dazzling verve. Prazák remains in Prague, an all-Czech quartet, a little more understated but full of depth.
Although the programs focused mainly on traditional repertory, these weren’t conventional programs and intersected with the West Coast in surprising, curious ways.
The Takács played one of Haydn’s last quartets, Opus 77, No. 2, with zest, the String Quartet in E-flat major by Fanny Mendelssohn (Felix’s sister) with winning conviction and, finally and gloriously, Schumann’s Piano Quintet (it too in E-flat major) joined by pianist Jeremy Denk.
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The latter proved a fine reminder of a 1950 recording by the Paganini Quartet made in L.A. with Rubinstein. Yet another only-in-L.A. ensemble, the Paganini was founded by violinist Henri Temianka in 1946 and lasted for two decades. The members played on four matched Stradivarius violins once owned by Paganini. The thick sound they produced was unlike any other and has to be heard to be believed.
Temianka, who died in 1992, was a violinist about town, founder of the California Symphony Orchestra, which was in residence at Royce Hall, and was a predecessor of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. At his Rancho Park digs, as well as at various celebrity and émigré mansions in Beverly Hills and Pacific Palisades, he hosted chamber music gatherings, which often featured whatever star musicians happened to be in town and were attended by the likes of Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Franz Werfel, Bruno Walter and Jack Benny. Jazz drummer Shelly Manne was known to drop in and even, in the 1960s, the odd rock star.
The Paganini also played new music, including a quartet written for the ensemble by Darius Milhaud, the French composer long in residence at Mills College and a teacher of the likes of David Brubeck, Philip Glass, Burt Bacharach and Steve Reich.
The Prazák included Milhaud’s String Quartet No. 1 in its program, which began with an early Haydn quartet and a stunning performance of Dvorák’s last string quartet. Even better would have been Schoenberg’s Fourth String Quartet, which was written in Brentwood and of which the Prazák has made an excellent recording.
Helping underscore L.A.’s long-standing history of chamber music, the Prazák’s appearance happened to be hosted by Sundays With Coleman. The Coleman Concerts began in Pasadena in 1904 and have continued, with little interruption, ever since. As someone who grew up in Pasadena, I first encountered John Cage, Olivier Messiaen, Harry Partch, Luciano Berio, Elliott Carter and many other leading contemporary composers at the Coleman Encounter series. All of them changed my life.
Other regulars at the Coleman Concerts included Richard Lert, the Austrian-born music director of the Pasadena Symphony and his wife, Vicki Baum, on whose novel the Oscar-winning 1932 film “Grand Hotel” was based. Did Baum bring her good friend and star of “Grand Hotel” — Greta Garbo — along? Most likely she did.
Six days after the Prazák, an all-star trio composed of pianist Emanuel Ax, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and cellist Yo-Yo Ma gave an all-Beethoven Saturday matinee concert at Disney. Describing Beethoven as a life-affirming composer, Ma told the audience that a couple of days earlier he called John Williams, of whom Ma said “few people write more life-affirming music,” asking the 90-year-old composer whether he just might want to make a little piano trio arrangement of his theme to “Schindler’s List.” The score promptly arrived. Its loving premiere served as an encore to a robust, million-dollar performance of Beethoven’s “Archduke” Trio.
Threads of the Hollywood connection to chamber music can be woven and woven. The Hollywood String Quartet has a contemporary successor, the New Hollywood String Quartet, which last year released a recording of String Quartet No. 2 “Wandering” by Don Davis, whose haunting scores contribute incomparably to making the “The Matrix” films what they are. In the best L.A. tradition, the New Hollywood will be joined by cellist Clive Greensmith in March for one of the most moving of all chamber music works, Schubert’s Quintet in C.
That performance will be part of yet another distinctive L.A. chamber music tradition, Music in Historic Sites (originally called Chamber Music in Historic Sites when founded in 1980 by MaryAnn Bonino). This series finds chambers often where you’d least expect them, making it a uniquely sophisticated underground tour of Southern California. The New Hollywood concert will be at the Stimson House, that Romanesque mansion on Figueroa Street.
The tradition of creating notable string quartets continues apace. The Calder Quartet, founded by students at USC (just down the street from the Stimson) in 1998, has become one of the country’s top quartets. More recently the Calidore String Quartet came together in 2010 at the Colburn Conservatory, where Greensmith, a former member of the Tokyo Quartet, teaches.
The Calidore, now based in New York, just released a recording of Beethoven’s late string quartets on Signum Records. The world may not need another set of these monuments to chamber music, but they are boldly recorded here, played with remarkable depth, yet another example of astonishingly life-affirming music making.
Here’s one more. The Lyris Quartet is an occasional ensemble of four L.A. freelance musicians with a special talent for new music. As a chamber music antidote to the Super Bowl, the Lyris performs Ben Johnson’s “Amazing Grace” Quartet Sunday as part of the Jacaranda new music series at First Presbyterian in Santa Monica.
In fact, chamber music has throughout its history served, as it did for the Hollywood studio musicians, Czechs, Hungarians and so many others in times of repression, as an ideal of personal, intimate artistic expression — you need only work your way through Shostakovich’s 14 strings quartets for an example. It also can be found around just about any corner, as the invaluable Clickable Chamber Music Newsletter of Southern California reveals in exhaustive biweekly listings.
L.A. will miss you, Dudamel
The revelation that Gustavo Dudamel will be leaving his post at the L.A. Phil for the New York Philharmonic in 2026 rocked the classical music world earlier this week. It’s difficult to overstate how much the maestro has changed the cultural landscape of Los Angeles in his 17 years as music director here, from his work with Youth Orchestra Los Angeles (YOLA) to elevating promising composers to the stage — not to mention what his ascent has meant to the Latino community. Dudamel called me before the news broke and admitted that the prospect of leading the storied New York Philharmonic is an intriguing new challenge he’s ready to take on. But when Dudamel told the L.A. Phil orchestra members on Tuesday, violinist Bing Wang recalls that “his voice was almost shaking ... he’s the conductor that everybody wants to have. ... He’s just one of us. He feels like he belongs to L.A.” In our piece about the astounding news, my colleagues Deborah Vankin, Jessica Gelt and I have all the details.
Dudamel’s exit is an incalculable loss for Los Angeles. Still, it’s worth noting that the legendary New York Philharmonic — the orchestra of Leonard Bernstein and Gustav Mahler — hasn’t had a superstar conductor in decades. The East Coast mainstay is hoping that in poaching Dudamel, he will help fill seats, expand the range of music in concert halls, and shift the mood of the orchestra. The N.Y. Phil doesn’t need saving, but it does need him. Still, as I noted earlier this week in a piece about what Dudamel’s exodus means, “the question is not whether Dudamel is ready for New York, but whether New York is ready for him.”
Our full coverage of Dudamel can be found here.
In the galleries
Art critic Christopher Knight has a look at Uta Barth‘s transcendent retrospective exhibit at the Getty Museum. In her work, the German-born photographer often employs a conceptual approach that challenges the ground rules of photography. Barth’s piece “Ground #41,” for instance, depicts an image of a bookshelf out of focus. “The more you look, though, the more things do converge into something that approaches unexpected clarity,” Knight writes. “Yes, the image is out of focus, but it dawns that it’s the kind of view one expects as the background of, say, a figure study or portrait. You sense the missing person. The only people present in this picture are the photographer and you. Strange intimacy unfurls.” Make your way over there before the show shutters on Feb. 19.
And arts reporter Deborah Vankin has a rollicking look at what it takes to send off two luxury cars that were recently on view at the Andy Warhol cars exhibit at the Petersen Automotive Museum — a silver 1937 Mercedes-Benz W 125 Grand Prix and a 1970 Mercedes-Benz Type C 111-ll experimental sports vehicle — on an international road trip. One tip? Don’t turn the cars on. Read all about the unique traffic jam of moving these cars here.
Art fair season descends upon us
Unsure how to prioritize your itinerary for the many, many art fairs — including Frieze, Felix and the LA Art Show — descending upon Los Angeles in the coming days? Fear not! The arts team has you covered. Head over to reporter Steven Vargas’ special art fair edition of his L.A. Goes Out newsletter, featuring an extensive guide to events, happenings, conversations and other intriguing art fair offerings.
Highlights include a series of outdoor and site-specific works on the Westside, curated by Del Vaz Projects, and an emphasis on emerging young artists, like Clifford Prince King, a photographer who often documents intimacy in queer communities of color. Also in the mix: tips for the fairs (pack snacks!) and, as if there isn’t enough to do already, a list of new galleries opening in Los Angeles in time for the fairs.
And don’t miss Vankin’s rundown of the many art fairs this weekend and next.
On and off the stage
There’s no shortage of performing arts offerings at the moment, either. This week, theater critic Charles McNulty scoped out the Wooster Group, an experimental New York outfit, as it tackled one of Bertolt Brecht‘s learning plays, “The Mother,” at REDCAT. It’s an odd matchup on the surface, but it proved so effective that it “left me wondering what took the company so long,” McNulty writes, noting that in it, “techno postmodernism finds its political heart.”
Vargas has a profile of Lee Edward Colston II, a playwright and actor whose epic family drama “The First Deep Breath” just opened for its West Coast premiere at Geffen Playhouse. A decade in the making, the play reflects Colston’s winding journey to the stage as he took a detour to work as a corrections officer before landing at Juilliard. “There wasn’t really a pathway that had been written for young Black artists to model themselves after,” he tells Vargas. “At least one that was visible to me in my community.”
If musicals are more your speed, this weekend marks a unique convergence of two blockbusters — “Frozen” and “The Lion King” — landing in Southern California. Jessica Gelt sat down with Jennifer Lee and Irene Mecchi, two of the masterminds behind the smash films and subsequent musicals: Lee wrote the libretto for the “Frozen” musical, and Mecchi penned the one for the “The Lion King.” In their wide-ranging conversation, the pair discuss the barriers of working in a male-dominated industry, and why these beloved stories have endured.
And contributor Eva Recinos profiled the multidisciplinary Los Angeles artist Dorian Wood on the heels of her expansive project at REDCAT, “Canto de Todes,” that combined live chamber music performance, projections, immersive music and cantatas. As Wood tells Recinos, “there was always this weird outsider perspective that I initially resented and have learned to just embrace as the totality of who I am and what my voice is.”
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Even more classical notes
Of course, there’s even more to report on the classical music front. The Los Angeles Opera recently kicked off its run of “The Marriage of Figaro” directed by Hollywood filmmaker James Gray in his debut for the company. A lifelong opera fan, Gray, known for character studies including “Armageddon Time” and “The Immigrant,” tells contributor Tim Greiving that opera appeals to him “because music is the most direct path to the human heart, combined with behavior that we recognize — even as outsized as it is — and it recognizes and acknowledges the extremes of our soul. That’s what transcendence is.”
In my review of “The Marriage of Figaro,” I was struck by Gray’s traditional staging of the opera, down to its costuming and sets, evoking the 1786 of Mozart‘s day. He has, as I noted, “gone further in his attempted conventional faithfulness to Mozart’s score, and the goings on in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto, more than any respectable modern opera director would dare.” In doing so, he garnered an eager response from the audience that night.
The indefatigable Gelt has the scoop on the Hollywood Bowl’s lineup this year, including a bevy of pop and rock stars — Janet Jackson, Sparks, Jill Scott, Culture Club, among many others — and classical events, including the return of Dudamel’s Pan-American Music Initiative, featuring Mexican composer Francisco Cortés-Álvarez’s “La Serpiente de Colores” and a celebration of the late Stephen Sondheim.
The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has announced the retirement of Larry J. Feinberg, the current Robert and Mercedes Eichholz director and CEO.
Lauren Cross has been named the Huntington’s new associate curator of American decorative arts.
Former L.A. Times arts, culture and entertainment editor Kelly Scott, known for her sharp editing in her 25-year tenure at the paper, has died at the age of 68. In his obituary of Scott, reporter Matt Pearce illuminates how her distinctive approach to editing lent a “savvy, independent, intellectually curious touch to the paper’s coverage.”
The multi-hyphenate pop songwriter and composer Burt Bacharach has died of natural causes. He was 94. Unsure where to start with Bacharach’s oeuvre? Pop music critic Mikael Wood explains why these 20 essential songs are essential to the late songwriter’s catalog.
Harry Kelsey, former chief curator at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, has passed away.
In other news
A trove of Vermeer paintings — the largest ever at a single museum — have arrived at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Good luck getting tickets, though.
The Library of Congress has acquired the archives of Garth Fagan, the Jamaican-born choreographer who won a Tony Award in 1998 for his groundbreaking work on the Broadway hit “The Lion King.”
Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has partnered with MTV for a reality competition art show, “The Exhibit: Finding The Next Great Artist” (yes, you read that correctly.) The winner will nab a solo exhibition at the museum in addition to $100,000.
The film “La La Land” is being adapted into a Broadway stage musical.
The late salsa icon Celia Cruz will be the first Afro-Latina to appear on a U.S. quarter.
As always, Matt Cooper has arts events galore in his roundup of cultural offerings this weekend in Los Angeles.
And last but not least ...
So long, Twitter art bots.
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