A group of about 30 people sipped at wine and milled around the private Palos Verdes Estates home while admiring views of the California coast.
They quickly turned into a quiet, attentive audience as five musicians performed a quintet by German composer, Johannes Brahms.
The intimate setting was a throwback to another era ... a time when music was played only in a home or large hall.
This Benefactors’ Salon was performed in a grand room with tall ceilings, crown molding and wooden accents. And it was a way to thank the strongest supporters of the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay.
In addition to the appreciation, the intimate concert marked the opening of the Chamber Orchestra’s 36th season.
With Rufus Choi on piano, Miwako Watanabe, violin one, Nancy Roth, violin two, Elizabeth Wilson on viola and Frances Steiner on cello they performed a piano quintet in F minor, OP 34.
The musician's horse hair bows bounced and flicked in the air as they glided across the string instruments. They played a dramatic allegro introduction. And, then, the piece evolved into something slower and more romantic. The cadence built gradually as it went back and forth from light and flowy to sharp and heavy.
Audience members shared knowing looks as the quintet played some of their favorite pieces.
Than, as soon as the music stopped, they jumped from their seats to give a standing ovation.
President of the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay, Peter V. Barrett was on hand to mingle with guests before and after the performance.
Barrett, who played trumpet at Harvard, was introduced to instrumental music through the radio. His interest grew and he eventually fell in love with classical music.
“It’s a fine work of art, not just a matter of throwing stuff together," said Barrett.
"The creation of chamber music is something that doesn't happen in five minutes but is something that’s been very thoughtfully created,” he said. “It’s a back and forth with instruments talking to each other and as you listen to it trying to hear their voices and your way of understanding it. You have to work at it, it doesn't just flow over you. You have to be involved in it.”
Making classical music cool
Barrett calls the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay, “the cultural jewel here in Palos Verdes.” He just wishes more people knew about it as he joked that you don’t hear Brahms on a college campus too often.
“This is a timeless kind of high quality music that I think everyone should have access to. One of the things that worries me in a broad brushstroke … I think it's important for people to make choices—but if you're going to make a choice you have to be aware of what the choices are,” he said. “I think it's important for young people who are growing up to be able to be exposed (to classical music). I think it's becoming harder and harder for a lot of the population to hear some of the music that (was performed) today. Now a lot of them wouldn't like it, that's ok, but if they’ve never heard it they wouldn’t know that they don’t like it.”
The music that was performed during the Benefactors’ Salon was composed nearly 150 years ago in 1869 during the Romantic period. It was a period which followed the Baroque period from 1600 to around 1750 and the Classical period from 1730 to 1820, respectively.
It makes sense that if someone wasn’t involved with music in school or wasn’t specifically exposed to it by someone they know, or by accident, they could potentially live their entire life never hearing it.
But, Barrett is making an effort to change that. He has reached out to a few schools inviting their music classes to the Chamber Orchestra rehearsals at no charge. The orchestra has also worked with the Boy Scouts to help fulfill their community service badges.
“There's lots of kinds of music but this is one that's important to our culture and has been for years,” he said. “Chamber music is something makes you think, makes you relax. I think this is important to our society and I'm glad to do what I can to keep it going.”
Founder Frances Steiner
Barrett is fortunate enough to have one of the best accomplices the South Bay could possibly offer. He refers to her as a “dynamo” and “the cornerstone” of the organization. As an 8 year-old, she was the youngest cellist The Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia has ever accepted: Dr. Frances Steiner.
Steiner, who founded the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay in 1974, is also its current music director.
She graduated from Curtis with a Bachelor of Music degree at age 19. She then studied composition with Walter Piston and Randall Thompson at Harvard University where she received an M.A. She followed that with music studies in France with Nadia Boulanger, a woman who also taught Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland. Boulanger was also one of the first women to ever conduct the New York Philharmonic.
Brought out to California by her husband who resides here, Steiner then received a D.M.A. from the University of Southern California where she majored in cello and conducting.
After a few stints as principal cellist for the California Chamber Symphony and the Glendale Chamber Symphony along with a few freelancing gigs, Steiner had with a trio that also included playing alongside her sister.
But Steiner’s music journey started long before when she was only 3 years old. At first, it was on the piano, but the cello called her name a year later. She said she was simply drawn to the sound of the instrument.
“Both my parents were musicians so it was sort of the family business. (My dad) had a student cello he would lend out to students under the piano and I crawled under the piano one day and took out the cello,” she said after the performance Sunday. “I just love that sound, that deep voice. I really do believe, and I always advise this to parents, I think children really do kind of have a sound they like, and I always like to let them choose their own instrument.”
Since Steiner started so young, she read music before she was able to read English. She “feels the music,” she said, and joked that she even “spoke music,” before she spoke English.
“I think music is a language, it's a non-verbal language but it's a language,” she said. “I relate to the music and what the music says—just the language of the music itself. Anything else is translation and I don’t want to translate music … You diminish it.”
The cello is part of her identity. She plays every day even when she doesn’t necessarily feel up to it. Except eight years ago, when she tripped, fell and broke her elbow—a part of her was put on hold.
“The elbow wouldn’t bend enough to come back this way. I’d sit at the cello trying to get the elbow working,” she said. “I’d sometimes sit there with tears running down my face because I couldn't play.”
While she admits the demand of music is the least appealing aspect, “you have to practice every day; you lose it otherwise,” she said, there’s no stopping her and her team, as they now call the Palos Verdes Performing Arts home for the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay.
“When the Norris Theatre opened it gave us a professional venue—we had been playing in churches and schools before that,” she said. “The orchestra became fully professional at that time.”
When asked what her favorite time period is, her favorite composer, her favorite piece: she doesn’t have one, she replies.
“The music itself inspires me. It’s not like I’m taking the inspiration from anything,” she said. “It’s all about the music. I always say I’m in love with whatever I’m working on right now.”