The Subtitle of this blog should be: “The House that Music Built”. Here’s the story…
There are several internationally acclaimed musicians whom I have had the pleasure of attending their performances as well as following them on social media.
Being able to watch these stellar musicians up close and personal at intimate home concerts has done wonders for my own piano technique and in expanding my knowledge of repertoire. This is dear to my heart both as a piano teacher and a serious amateur pianist.
Earlier this year, I happened to be glancing at the performance schedule on the website of one of my favorite pianists, Steven Vanhauwaert. A Mason Home Concert in Mar Vista had been listed. I was intrigued and had to learn more.
Luckily, the Mason Home Concert website was easy to find online and navigate. I sent an email inquiry about the concert through the website, hoping to get a response. I was pleasantly surprised to receive a warm and prompt reply from the host, himself, Mr. Todd Mason. We have been corresponding since!
I had the pleasure of attending my first Mason Home Concert in May this year. The trio featured cellist, Cécilia Tsan, violinist, Ambroise Aubrun and pianist, Steven Van Hauwaert. There was plenty of free parking at the end of the block, just north, at a middle school or on Palms Blvd. Delicious food and beverages were served after the concert. I recognized some guests from other home concerts and was pleased to make the acquaintance of composer and pianist, Danaë Xanthe Vlasse.
At the end of the concert, Todd spoke briefly about how his home’s front room was designed acoustically for home concerts. That passion for creating a venue for classical music performances in an intimate setting really impressed me. I had to blog about it. Thankfully, Todd was excited to share his story and enthusiastically accepted my interview invitation. I hope you find it as fascinating as I did, and will consider attending a concert or two at his “House that Music Built”.
Q1. What inspired you to host classical music concerts in your home? When did you first decide to do so? Who were your first musicians? What pieces were performed at the inaugural concert? How many guests were in attendance?
A1. As a teenager studying music, I went to my first house concert in Palos Verdes with my parents and heard the Schubert Trout Quintet and was captivated. It was as if a light bulb suddenly switched on. A whole new world of sound and imagination gripped me and still has me. I knew then that classical music was my future.
After graduating from Juilliard as a composer, my wife and I began going to classical music house concerts and found them a very special and rewarding experience particularly in Los Angeles where there are so many distractions of the moment. At a home concert, one can sit very close to the musicians and hear the most beautiful nuances and overtones, in sometimes otherwise very familiar pieces, that often escape in the bigger halls. And afterward, you can mingle and talk to the musicians and let them know how it all affected you which they deeply appreciate. So…my wife and I thought we might try a few house concerts ourselves, little knowing how many concerts this would lead to!
Our first concert, with about 40 people in attendance, was in 2014 and was called “A Concert of Firsts.” It was also the first concert of the newly formed Argus Quartet, whom I’d met at USC, and they premiered a string quartet of mine in addition to playing wonderful Haydn and Britten’s 1st Quartet. Since then, the Argus Quartet has done extremely well and was recently the Graduate Resident String Quartet at the Juilliard School. So I’m very happy we helped announce them!
Q2. That’s what I love about home concerts, too. Just to clarify, did you host concerts in your home before the acoustic renovation, or did you wait until after the work was completed?
A2. That was our official first concert in our newly remodeled house on the Westside. We’d had a few informal concerts before that but we knew we had to make some big changes to the house for seating space and acoustics so we hired a local contractor who worked with a wonderful architect and acoustician to create the ideal space for chamber music home concerts.
Q3. Thanks for clarifying. What were some of the strategies employed in the acoustic remodel of your home’s living room?
A3. All the interior angles were thought out to avoid what’s known as “standing waves” where certain frequencies boom or are lost altogether. The new concert space is essentially a finely tuned room within a room. There’s a small air gap behind the interior walls and ceiling to allow the music to resonate, almost as if it’s an extension of the instruments itself.
We also used a special wood, called Alder wood, because it’s not too hard or too soft. Alder gives a warm reflection without sounding harsh or acoustically flat. And there’s a new solid oak hardwood floor and all LED warm lighting that highlights the musicians. The idea was to create a great acoustic space but also a beautiful space for all this beautiful music.
Q4. Were City permits required?
A4. When we remodeled, we also brought the house up to all current building codes for earthquakes, etc., but added extra concrete in the perimeter foundation of the room which anchors everything, acoustically. There’s also extra sound insulation material in the outer walls and ceiling and triple-paned glass windows to keep out any errant helicopter or motorcycle noise as well as keeping the music inside. Although, quite a few of our neighbors now love coming to the concerts. BTW, our house is also 100% solar powered. So we have a solar-powered music series!
Q5. I love that – Solar-Powered Music Series! What was your original vision for the music room?
A5. Though it was all much more expensive than planned (we were warned!), the new acoustics have been a big success and, somewhat poetically, one of the concerts people still talk about is when we featured the Schubert Trout Quintet with members of the LA Opera Orchestra, not just because of the great players but also because of the addition of the double bass which sounded so amazing in the room. We’ve also had a brass quintet, which was absolutely vibrant, solo piano, singers and woodwinds which have all been very successful. This season we’ll have another first – a harp – with the accomplished Debussy Trio. I already know it will be wonderful because the harpist was here for a rehearsal and it filled the room beautifully. She immediately said, “wow, it sounds great in here!”
We also invested in a special concert grand piano which is essential to presenting serious chamber music. It’s a late model Yamaha C7 with German hammers so you get the famous brilliance of the C7 but with a warmth that blends with, and doesn’t overpower, the other instruments. We’ve done some excellent recording sessions in the room and I have several more planned.
Q6. That’s quite a beautiful instrument you graciously have provided for your guest pianists. Regarding the concert series, how are the programs and musicians selected? Do you have a pre-set list of musicians you call upon? What is the story or inspiration behind your choice of composers, compositions and focus on solos, duets, and ensembles?
A6. As for selecting the programs, I work carefully with each group to present an hour of music that will offer interesting variety with a compelling combination of standard repertoire and contemporary music. We usually try to find a theme for each concert. Sometimes, the groups already have a pretty good idea of what they’d like to perform and other times I help with the selections but it’s always with the idea of presenting the most exciting and beautiful classical music for that hour.
I have quite a few regular guests but there are always new faces too. The final concert of our 2019 series – we have five concerts from January through May – featured cellist Cécilia Tsan, with pianist Steven Vanhauwaert and violinist Ambroise Aubrun. We had 85 people who wanted to come so we had to have two performances on the same night. That trio will return in 2020 in April and people are already signing up. Cécilia, who also curates the popular Mount Wilson Concerts in the Dome series, has become a regular guest in our series.
Another wonderful feature is our pre-concert talks by Colburn musicologist, Dr. Kristi Brown, who also gives pre-concert talks for the LA Phil. Dr. Brown is engaging and informative and we have a big screen so people can enjoy the visual part of her presentations showing composers and their history during her talks.
In addition to the music, we’ve become known for serving very tasty hors d’oeuvres and buffet entrées! I’d like to thank our family friend, Ethel, for preparing so much amazing food and being a series sponsor from the beginning. She’s one of our series’ most valued friends. People like that are so special and important to these kinds of house concerts.
Our shared goal in producing these concerts is that, rather than just have an hour of Beethoven or Mozart, however nice that might be, we want to create an experience — an evening celebration of the very best that classical music can offer with our world-class musicians of Los Angeles, and do all of that in an intimate setting with sounds that embrace the soul. As Hans Christian Anderson famously said: “Where words fail, music speaks.”
As a composer, I also offer my own compositions for many of the concerts. In fact, in 2020, all five of the concerts will feature a new piece of mine, pieces which then are often performed elsewhere in Los Angeles. This past summer, The Debussy Trio commissioned a new work from me which will be premiered in our March concert. The Lyris Quartet will premiere my 1st String Quartet in February.
The Vieness Piano Duo will include a new work of mine in our January concert, and I’m currently working on a new piece for our April concert with Cécilia Tsan’s trio.
Our season finale in May will feature leading players from the LA Opera Orchestra and LA Phil – a piano and wind sextet – and will include a work of mine that was just premiered in the Chamber Music Palisades series, curated by flutist Susan Greenberg. [The complete 2020 season lineup can be seen on Todd’s series website: masonconcerts.org]
In the last 5 years of our concerts, we’ve had a wealth of so many superb musicians including top string quartets, quintets, trios, with many principles in the LA Opera Orchestra, LA Philharmonic, LA Chamber Orchestra, Long Beach Symphony, and the Pacific Symphony. We even did Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 with eight musicians and 50 guests.
Q7. Congratulations on that! That’s quite a line-up. How may my readers learn more about and possibly subscribe to Mason Home Concerts? I believe your concert series is also listed on Jim Eninger’s fabulous Clickable Chamber Music Newsletter of SoCal. Are there other sources that list your concert series?
A7. Firstly, I’d like to thank Jim Eninger for his LA concerts newsletter and for his support. He’s been a great booster to help get the word out and always includes our concerts in the “hidden gems” section of his invaluable Clickable Chamber Music Newsletter.
USC also did a write up of the series which helped bring in quite a few people. I think it’s also been “word of mouth” because the attendance keeps growing.
May I please recommend that your readers who are interested in attending or learning more about the upcoming 2020 series at Mason Concerts visit our website at masonconcerts.org. They can contact me through the website and I’ll be happy to answer questions and add people to the mailing list. These concerts are becoming very popular and seating is quite limited. Last year, almost all our concerts sold out so it’s on a first come first serve basis.
Q8. Thank you for the intel for my readers. I understand you are also a Juilliard trained composer. What genres inspire your compos? Have you received awards for your compos?
A8. As for my own background, I studied composition at Juilliard with Elliott Carter and David Diamond and received the Rodgers & Hammerstein Juilliard Scholarship, Juilliard’s Marion Freschl Award for a composition for voice and orchestra, First Place in the National Federation of Music Clubs composition contest, First Place in the Lancaster Summer Arts Festival, and the ASCAP Young Composers award, presented by Aaron Copland.
In the last few years, I’ve been fortunate to have many of my pieces performed in the Los Angeles area including at the Concerts in the Dome series, Piano Spheres, the Glendale Noon Concerts series, and numerous music festivals as well as being Composer-in-Residence at the Astoria Music Festival and the Sunset ChamberFest. And I’ve just had two orchestral pieces played, one by the Sofia Philharmonic and another by the Azusa Pacific University orchestra. In my own compositions, you’ll hear traditional harmonies and structure mixed with elements of more chromatic and rhythmic adventurism. But I always tell younger composers to keep one thing in mind, regardless of style, which is to tell a story in their music. That’s the most important thing of all. There are a number of my pieces available on YouTube and they can be found on my composer website: toddmasoncomposer.com
Q9. Music can touch people’s lives, bringing happiness and hope. For example, my piano school partners with CoachArt.org to provide free art or piano lessons for families impacted by childhood chronic illness. Is there a charity Mason Home Concerts or yourself are fond of or support, that you might like my readers to learn more about? Are Mason Home Concert seats available for donations to those charities?
A9. Because of my first musical awakening at a home concert when I was 15, I always try to include young people in our audiences, particularly young music students. I always leave a few seats open for that because my hope is that a young person will come to one of our concerts and hear one of our amazing artists, or a particular piece, and have that epiphany – that lightbulb moment – and be inspired to become an artist themselves. Then I would feel as though it has all been a very good thing indeed.
In closing, do you have a favorite quote, mantra or process that you found inspiring or helpful when faced with the challenges during your home renovation, that you would like to share with my readers?
As for special quotes or mantras that keep me inspired, I certainly agree with Eleanor Roosevelt when she said: “You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience … you must do the thing you think you cannot do.” One of the quotes I relate to as a composer is from Benjamin Britten: “Composing is like driving down a foggy road toward a house. Slowly you see more details of the house-the color of the slates and bricks, the shape of the windows. The notes are the bricks and the mortar of the house.”
If you are interested in attending or learning more about the upcoming 2020 series at Mason Concerts, please visit the website at masonconcerts.org.
You may contact Todd Mason from the website. He’ll be happy to answer questions and add people to his mailing list. His concerts are becoming very popular and seating is quite limited. Last year, almost all his concerts sold out so it’s on a first come first serve basis!
To learn more about this visionary composer, please click the links below.
Now that you are acquainted with this wonderful venue, its programs and host I hope you will consider adding it to your 2020 concert list!
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