The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra kicked-off their 2016-17 season with the purest form of chamber music imaginable: three musicians in someone’s living room playing for a handful of engaged and enthralled guests.
Yet as accurate as that description is, it merely begins to scratch the surface of what was a much richer experience that evening. The home in question was the official residence of Ms. Ulrike Ritzinger, The Honorable Consul General of Austria. Pre-concert beer and wine reception and post-concert dinner for all in attendance were held on the lawn next to the house. Think of it as an intimate concert meets dining experience cum social event.
It was the first of this season’s “à la carte” concerts, LACO’s series that fuses chamber music with international cuisine. Each evening’s theme is based on a specific country, with the majority of the events being held at the home of the given countries’ local diplomat.
As Scott Harrison, LACO’s Executive Director, would point out, “Without Austria, there’d be no chamber orchestras.” Given that a trio of LACO first-desk players would play music by Mozart and Johann Strauss I and that the hosts would follow it up with a feast of classic Austrian dinner fare, concept and country seemed to be a perfect marriage for this rendition of“à la carte.”
The entire evening proved to be that and then some. The music-making was superb, the food tasty, and the dinner conversations friendly and interesting.
The concert began with three of the six movements from Mozart’s Divertimento in E-flat major. It is a late work, written the same year as his final three symphonies and the “Coronation” Piano Concerto; it blends the depth present in those mature pieces with the charm of his earlier divertimenti.
Tereza Stanislav (violin), Victoria Miskolczy (viola), and Andrew Shulman (cello) gave it a committed, virtuosic reading. The first movement Allegro was both warm and energetic, the Adagio was tender, and the scampering finale proved to be a technical showcase. The trio gelled completely throughout, tossing melodic phrases back and forth with ease one moment and providing perfectly balanced support to each other the next.
They were aided by a seemingly perfect room. It was large enough to accommodate the 40-ish guests in attendance, yet still small enough that even people in the back row could see the subtleties of a player’s bow-hand or the expressions on their faces. More importantly, the acoustics were ideal: a shoebox-shaped space with a high ceiling and exposed beams; hardwood floors; and walls that were a mix of glass and brick. The result was a lively, resonant environment that made the Mozart more visceral than I’d ever expected a string trio to be.
Closing out the musical portion of the evening was an arrangement of the Radetzkymarsch, the hum-along/clap-along work that traditionally closes the Vienna Philharmonic’s New Year’s Eve concerts.
But as Ms. Stanislav warned everyone from the make-shift stage, this arrangement — made originally by Tristan Schulze for cello and more recently adapted by Gernot Wolfgang (Austrian born and Los Angeles based composer) for string trio — was scored in a 5/8 time signature, and unless one were supremely confident in his or her ability to keep a steady beat to that rather awkward rhythm, it was best to just sit back in listen.
What ensued was fun and cleverly disjointed. The Schulze/Wolfgang version of the Strauss classic often changed mood, ominous one moment and vaguely Cowboy Western the next. In fact, the revised phrasing and musical jokes were so good, you’d find yourself becoming enthralled in the musicality of this arrangement, to the point that it sounded organic enough to make you forget the original. One hopes that Messrs. Shulze and/or Wolfgang find an excuse to re-score this version for full orchestra.
The string trio gave it a spirited performance, traversing the tricky work while laughing on-stage during and after the performance. The crowd was appreciative, joining in the laughter and reveling in the light-hearted mood.
If someone invites you to an evening of Mozart being played in the home of an Austrian diplomat, you might be forgiven if the pictures you conjured in your brain were of a buttoned-up affair in an ornate salon of some Viennese palace where musicians in powdered wigs performed for a gathering of men in white tie and tails and women in floor length gowns.
This was not like that at all.
The official L.A. residence of the Austrian Consul General is a relatively modest, mid-20th Century single-story ranch home that looks so Angeleno it could have come straight out of a David Hockney painting rather than that imagined Viennese estate. The house is set in one corner of its lot, allowing for a reasonably sized lawn which, on this night, held a buffet, a bar, and two long dining tables.
Not long after my guest and I entered the grounds after being checked in by a LACO staff member, we were greeted with enthusiasm by a fellow attendee. “You must be new!,” remarked our new friend, a charming lady that we’d later learn was a long-time LACO patron. She didn’t introduce herself with mention of who she was besides her first name, nor did she do so with any sense of self-importance. More notably, she wasn’t probing who we were, where we were from, or what our connection was to the orchestra. Instead, she seemed genuinely happy that we’d join her and her friends, and she encouraged us to join them again for future “à la carte” concerts if we weren’t already planning to do so.
And it wasn’t just her. One looked around and saw everyone being social, chatting, mixing, mingling, networking, whatever it may be. If some introvert was off on their own, someone would walk over to them. Many remarked that while the music was wonderful, an equally compelling reason for their subscription to this series was that they got to hang out and catch up with people they knew they’d see at these events. Attendees included a mix of prominent LACO supporters, guests who specifically preferred the combined experience over a typical concert experience, and curious newcomers. Basically, anyone willing to pay the $400 per ticket for the access was automatically welcomed into the fold as a compatriot.
Um, $400 you say??!!!
Yeah, the ticket price might be prohibitive, even exorbitant, to those who hold out for student or senior rush tickets. At the same time, it isn’t completely out of reach of the bulk of classical music fans, especially in a world where tickets to the latest re-hashed Puccini production at LA Opera will cost almost $300. Do you want a Front Orchestra seat at Walt Disney Concert Hall for Gustavo Dudamel conducting the LA Phil and violin soloist Joshua Bell? That’ll be $201 please. At least some of your $400 LACO “à la carte” ticket is tax-deductible as a donation, and you get the pre-concert reception, dinner, and drinks all included with the concert.
To put the $400 ticket price in another context: Pebble Beach is the renowned home to some of the best golf in the world. As a public course, anyone can play it as long as you’re willing to pay the $495+ green fees, and I know many duffers who’ve saved some of their money for the privilege of shooting double-par on those magnificent patches of grass on the edge of Carmel Bay. In the same way, LACO manages to put these concerts within reach of many, while other orchestras require much higher donations for comparable opportunities: a private chamber orchestra performance of NY Phil musicians will set you back $2,000, while a chance to enjoy a private concert with LA Phil Principal Concertmaster Martin Chalifour requires giving at the $25,000 level annually.
Mind you, there was certainly talk of money and privilege during the evening. One conversation included mention of hanging out with “Joe at his thing the previous night” –- “Joe” being Vice President of the United States Joseph Biden and “his thing” being the traffic-snarling private political fundraiser for which he traveled to Southern California.
But even that seemed to be more about someone sharing an amusing anecdote than dropping names. People talked to find common ground, not to set themselves apart. There was also unfettered access to the musicians, LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane, even The Honorable Ms. Ritzinger, all of whom were gracious with their time and more than happy to chat with anyone wanting to engage them. Regardless of why you were there or whether or not you’d been there before, this was a community of people who savored this shared experience among like-minded folks who enjoyed an evening dinner, drinks, and chamber music.
So is “à la carte” exclusive? Based strictly on the price of admission: sure, to some extent. Elitist? Definitely not. Enjoyable? Absolutely.
As one LACO senior executive pointed out , “à la carte” is likely the most literal manifestation of the orchestra’s tagline, “Making great music personal.” I couldn’t agree more. I wish I could experience all my concerts this way: in such close proximity the performers that you feel the sound of the cello pizzicato bounce off your chest; food and drink to enjoy; and knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and friendly people with whom to share it all.
If I should go to the next “à la carte” concert, I’m pretty sure my new friends would be happy to see me.
[Note: the three remaining “à la carte” concert events will be hosted by the Consuls General of Mexico (Friday, Sept 30), Turkey (Saturday, Oct 8), and Finland (Thursday, Oct 13). Details and tickets are available on the LACO website]
Random other thoughts:
- The menu for the evening: a very Viennese selection (or so I’ve been told) of roast chicken, sautéed beef, stuffed cabbage, haricots verts, and scalloped potatoes, plus some salads. Dessert choices included mini versions of apple strudel, crème brulee, and chocolate lava cake. The meal was catered by The Spot Gourmet.
- The pre-concert reception included tray-passed canapés to go with wine and beer. The selections of California wine and beer were fine, especially given that they were donated by sponsors. Still, it would have been nice to have actual Austrian beverages, especially Austrian beer in place of the Kölsch-style “Hollywood Blonde” from LA’s own Great Beer Company.
- This is Mr. Kahane’s final season as Music Director, and though he wasn’t performing at this concert, he sat in the front row and teased the musicians to not be intimidated by his presence. He also made a point of thinking The Honorable Ms. Ritzinger in Deutsche, catching her pleasantly surprised.
- Kahane also pointed out that after 19 years as Music Director, he and his wife had just bought a house in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles native but long-time resident of Santa Rosa in Northern California, he stated openly to the LACO Board members in attendance: “You know, you can require that of a Music Director and put that in the contract.” With the search for Mr. Kahane’s replacement in full swing, it will be interesting to see if they do just that.
September 10, 2016: Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; The official Los Angeles residence of the Consul General of Austria
“Austria à la carte”
Tereza Stanislav, violin
Victoria Miskolczy, viola
Andrew Shulman, cello
Mozart: Divertimento in E-flat major, K. 563
J Strauss I (arr. Tristan Schulze & Gernot Wolfgang): Radetzkymarsch (Radetzky March)
Photo credits: Annie Lesser