A Pasadena couple brings calm to the neighborhood, one free porch concert at a time
It’s Saturday afternoon in the Madison Heights neighborhood of Pasadena, and the sun has broken through a cumulus mountain of slate-gray clouds that have dominated the sky for the better part of a week. Rain puddles glint in the honey-colored light, lawns and trees are a dizzying electric green, and wildflowers bloom amok.
People are everywhere — exultant. Joggers in white tennis shoes, young couples with strollers, pedestrians and their pampered dogs, cyclists in skin-tight gear, and toddlers on balance bikes followed by harried parents with coffee mugs.
Schubert would be the perfect soundtrack for this heartbreakingly human moment when the joy of longed-for sunshine and a breath of fresh air hovers just above the constant ache of the coronavirus outbreak, the mounting death toll and the stay-at-home orders that have laid waste to the economy.
Wait, stop for a minute. Listen. Is that music? Are notes of “Ave Maria” being carried on the breeze? Is that why everyone up ahead has paused and is staring at a stately Craftsman home on the corner? Pick up your pace, cross the street and turn to look. A man on the porch sits before a music stand, playing the cello, while someone inside the house plays the piano behind the large front window.
Sink down to the curb, six feet from the person next to you, and feel the tears come warm to your eyes. Breathe. Look at the sky. It’s going to be OK. As long as this music is playing at this unexpected time, in this unexpected place, it’s going to be OK.
The crowd grows but keeps its distance along the street. When the song is over everyone claps, and the couple on the porch begin another. The impromptu concert, coming as concert halls across the country shutter and shared human experience is in critically low supply, lasts close to an hour as listeners come and go and neighbors perch in chairs on their lawns.
The music is a gift given each weekend by Beong-Soo Kim and his wife, Bonnie Wongtrakool. They are not professional musicians — Kim is a lawyer and Wongtrakool is a portfolio manager — but they have been playing their respective instruments since they were 5.
“I think it’s just our very tiny way of saying to our neighbors and any passersby, ‘We’re in this together, and we’ll get through it together,’” Kim says later of the concerts, which they have been performing at scattered times for the last month, ever since L.A. County’s Safer at Home order took effect. “Music has a way of connecting people in that way.”
Andy Wilson, a Pasadena city councilman who runs a nonprofit to elevate start-ups in the state, lives across the street from Kim and Wongtrakool.
“There is a human need to gather, a human need to appreciate the arts,” Wilson says. “This is such an organic experience.”
He is a regular fixture during the porch concerts. He sits on a chair that hangs from a tree in his yard, arm around his rescue dog, Gandalf. He is always glad when watchers sit on the low wall that borders his property.
“We sit back and think that we’re in paradise,” he says. “It’s a tough time, but it’s paradise for a moment.”
Laura Fleming, an events coordinator (“Now I’m just a cancel-events coordinator,” she laments) at Pasadena’s Polytechnic School, lives next door to Kim and Wongtrakool. She opens her windows during their concerts and the melodies rush in.
Highland Park resident Olivia Arthur calls it “art for social distancing — a drive-by gallery for neighbors.” The goal: Bring some joy to quarantine.
Her son plays violin and loves classical music. He’s attending Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. The first time Kim and Wongtrakool played on their porch, they dedicated a song to Fleming and her son. It was “Meditation” from the opera “Thaïs” by Jules Massenet.
“It’s one of our favorite songs, one that makes me cry too, and our son has performed it in various concerts,” Fleming says, adding that she videotaped the performance on her phone and sent it to her son.
Fleming takes great joy in watching people stop on their walks to listen to the music — surprised, touched and pleased.
“It really feels like a community service that they are doing once a week for everyone who feels so isolated,” Fleming says.
Kim and Wongtrakool are longtime subscribers with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which in late March announced the cancellation of the remainder of its 2019-20 season, news that greatly saddened them.
Music, says Wongtrakool, holds special resonance when you can see it performed live and the listener is part of a group experiencing the same moments together.
Friends and neighbors down the road, Jonathan and Cathy Karoly, have played in the L.A. Phil for more than 20 years, and Kim and Wongtrakool speak glowingly of going to see them perform back when eager music fans still flooded Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Cathy says they know another couple in the area — both in the L.A. Phil’s violin section — and muses that it would be a treat to stage a progressive neighborhood concert with all the local musicians out in their yards and on their porches.
“I think in its way, music is the most touching form of artistic expression and communication,” Cathy says. “It is directly from the soul, and I think right now all of our souls are hurting, so for us to play it, and for listeners to hear it, I think can remind us of the deeper value of life.”
On this Saturday, an older couple, arms linked and eyes glistening above brightly patterned homemade masks, stand listening to the music among a staggered cluster of passersby. Life feels fragile and fleeting, and all the sweeter because of it.
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