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UCLA Camarades String Chamber Music Concert at Lou Harrison’s House in Joshua Tree, California

May 9th, 2012 · No Comments

We received the following great write-up and photos from Music Department professor, Movses Pogossian. Shared credits go to Ben Bartelt, one of the participants. Enjoy!

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Recently I had the pleasure and honor of performing some chamber music in a former residence of American composer Lou Harrison, for a concert that was both one of the most intense and one of the most rewarding of my life. The venue was a cozy house in the desert town of Joshua Tree, California, approximately around two and a half hours east of Los Angeles, and had been designed by Harrison as a retreat for composing. Our program comprised solely modern masterworks: Bartok’s String Quartet #2, Schoenberg’s String Trio, and three movements from the String Quartet Set by Lou Harrison. I had the wonderful pleasure to play both in the quartet pieces and the trio.

Both groups had been preparing for a long time. Both the Bartok and Schoenberg pieces are extremely complicated, and each required many months of preparation. The Schoenberg we had performed the previous year at UCLA, for the Herb Alpert School of Music’s annual L.A. Composers concert. Eva Soltes, the director of the concert series at the Lou Harrison house, had been in the audience then and afterwards invited Professor Movses Pogossian, the violinist in our trio, to come and perform it there. Work on the Bartok quartet was begun at the beginning of this school year, and we continued to rehearse it until the day of the performance!

Luckily, we were able to perform the quartet repertoire a couple of times prior to the big day in Joshua Tree. First, we played for a music appreciation class at Pierce College. The ambience in the room where we performed was not the greatest, but I was very impressed with the students there. The Bartok is not an easy piece to listen to for the first time, and they were much quieter than I thought they would be. This was due at least in part to a helpful talk that Movses, our coach for the Bartok and Harrison, gave about the music. He explained the context of the piece, talked about the composer, and had us play examples from each movement to show the audience how the piece worked. A week after the Pierce College concert, we performed the Bartok for a similar class, this time at UCLA, again with a lecture-demonstration preceding it.

Before I knew it, the day of our Joshua Tree concert had come. We arrived there midday, and Eva Soltes, the director of the concert series at the Harrison house, entertained us for lunch. After some good food and good conversation, we retired indoors. It was a peaceful setting, quiet, and conducive to napping. But there was work to be done. First went the quartet. We played through some of the Bartok to get used to the acoustic of the room we were playing in. The space was very live and resonant; Harrison had designed it specifically with concerts in mind. We played the Harrison Quartet for Eva, who is an expert on Lou Harrison’s life and music, and she gave us some helpful advice. Afterwards we quickly touched the Schoenberg Trio, and then, all of a sudden, people were arriving! We went backstage–the house’s bedroom and kitchen–to tune and eat some cookies for a last-minute energy boost.

The room grew quiet, and we heard Movses talking to the audience. Then applause, and we walked on. We started the concert with two movements from Harrison’s Quartet Set, both of which were influenced by Medieval music. The first, called Estampie, is a quick dance-like movement with a springy beat and a fluid, ever-changing melody. This was followed by a movement that was a set of variations on a somber 13th-century song. Next up was Bartok. As we started playing, I became completely absorbed the music, and felt the same vibe from the others in the quartet. We had never performed in a setting so warm or so dry, and this had made me a little nervous beforehand. But neither had we performed with such intense concentration, and because of this, my nerves disappeared completely during the performance.

The first half of the concert went reasonably well, and though we were all sweating by the intermission, I felt energized from the music rather than depleted. After a few more quick cookies and chatting with the others about the preceding 45 minutes, it was time for Part 2. After Movses gave his talk about the music, we tuned and started to play the incredibl–and very difficult–Schoenberg. The piece had grown much more comfortable since we had learned it the year before, and it was a lot of fun being able to revisit it. The performance was not without mishaps, though: right as we were starting, I noticed that my mute, which had been on my viola at the end of the Bartok, had somehow disappeared during intermission. Searching in both my pockets turned up nothing, so I played without, and did my best not to play too loud in the soft spots. Twenty minutes and several broken bow hairs later, we were beginning the last piece on the program, which in this case was the same as the first piece, selections from Lou Harrison’s Quartet set. We again played two movements, this time starting with the “Plaint,” a slightly enigmatic piece with a sometimes melancholic, sometimes passionate character. Our final movement was the “Estampie,” with which we had also opened the concert.

It had a been an interesting and very enjoyable excursion. Thinking about the day’s experiences during the ride home, it occurred to me that I might never play a concert in a setting quite like this again. I knew, though, that it was an experience that would stay in my memory for the rest of my life.

Ben Bartelt, violist, graduating Senior in Music Performance, UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music

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The recent concert at Harrison House was an immensely satisfying experience for me, on so many levels.

The uniqueness of the venue is astonishing. Built by the great composer Lou Harrison for himself at the twilight of his life, the House has an incredible vibe, both literally (due to amazing acoustics, designed by Lou himself) and figuratively. It looks as a happy alien who decided to descent from the other civilization to make friends with the chaotic inspiring rocks of the Joshua Tree National Park. The Park, literally, starts from a few yards away. As an unexpected bonus, we were treated to the host of whimsical tall metal sculptures outside, by the fantastic Bay Area artist and old friend of Lou Harrison, Mark Bulwinkle, who recently completed a residency at the House. The Bulwinkle magic continued inside, with his drawings, cards, tiles, and other artifacts, including dozens of friendly metal birds hanging from the ceiling, which were resonating when the music was played.

As a musician, the program was one of the most satisfying that I have ever been part of, both because of its substance, and for the quality of performance. The two great masterworks of the 20th Century chamber music repertoire (Bartok Quartet no. 2 and Schoenberg String Trio) were given much love, attention, and copious amounts of time in the months of its preparation, and it clearly showed during the performance. As it often happens with extremely complex and difficult works, the performers are usually so busy solving one challenge after another, that there is no time to “smell the roses” and to enjoy the music. Therefore, it was really special to witness how the flow of music and the channeling of the composers’ emotive worlds was so natural, compelling, honest, and inspired. An important aspect was the wonderful opportunity to start and finish the concert with Lou Harrison’s music: pure, vibrant, reflective, flowing. To me, it felt deeply logical, and even a little mystical, as the hospitable and generally happy Californian was welcoming with his music to his home the two American Immigrants, both fleeing Europe and Nazis (Bartok and Schoenberg), one of which was his teacher as well…

Finally, as an educator, I have experienced a great pride for our students (and a little jealousy, may I add–I wish I had such opportunities when I was growing up in the Soviet Union!). Sharing music with them, both while coaching and performing, was a joy ride, really. Each of them demonstrated and generously shared with the audience what makes chamber music so special: the power of the inspired conversation of the equals, the intimacy of profound moments experienced communally, the spontaneity of the creative process, and the wonderful realization that the more you give, the more you’ll receive…

Many thanks to Eva Soltes, Lou Harrison’s long-time friend and associate, who made us feel so welcome, and who also gave the students an extremely helpful coaching on Harrison’s music. Thanks to Gregory for cooking the delicious after-concert dinner, which we happily consumed seating at the House’s inner courtyard, surrounded by the fairy-tale-like metal ornaments by Bulwinkle, and an amazing and calming silence of the Mojave Desert. And, finally, thanks to the great audience, which was everything that one could wish for: friendly, intelligent, serious, warm, open-minded, and, most importantly, open-hearted. I hope we can do this again. And again.

Movses Pogossian
Professor of Violin and Chair of Strings
The UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music

Performance information:

UCLA Camarades Concert at Harrison House
April 29, 2012, 4:00 PM

L. Harrison — String Quartet Set

B. Bartok — String Quartet No. 2

Mira Khomik and Rhea Fowler, violins, Ben Bartelt, viola, Eric Lee, cello

A. Schoenberg — String Trio (1946)

Movses Pogossian, violin, Ben Bartelt, viola, Jonathan Thomson, cello

UCLA Camarades String Quartet with Eva Soltes at the Harrison House

After the concert: pictured, left to right: Jonathan Thomson, Ben Bartelt, Rhea Fowler, Movses Pogossian, Eric Lee, Mira Khomik

Tags: Alumni · Composers · Faculty · Performance · Performance · Performers · School of Music · Students

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