Mikhail Gnesin and Leo Smit — ever hear of them? Most of us probably haven’t, and that’s one of the intriguing aspects of Le Salon de Musiques, an intimate downtown chamber music series founded by the French-born pianist Francois Chouchan in 2010.
The monthly series, which begins its fifth season on Oct. 12, offers French champagne, gourmet food and a talk by a musicologist. But people attend Le Salon, which takes place on the fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, for its special ambiance. Listening to music there is like hearing it in someone’s big, carpeted living room with giant windows.
In 2011, audience members, seated on the same level as performers, were treated to a memorable rendition of Franz Schubert’s “Winterreise.” As the troubled hero of the song cycle slowly descended into possible hallucinatory madness, the room darkened with the sun setting over city and hills — music and mood became one.
At its start, few expected Le Salon would become a fixture of Los Angeles’ music scene. There was nothing especially contemporary about Chouchan’s programming. Schoenberg’s darkly beautiful “Transfigured Night” was as cutting edge as Le Salon got.
But it has become one of the brightest and most exciting chamber music series in the city, largely because of Chouchan’s counterintuitively daring and imaginative programming. For example, the upcoming Dec. 7 program offers Maurice Ravel’s masterly “Sonata for Violin and Cello” followed by Mikhail Gnesin’s “Songs of a Knight Errant” for string quartet and harp. Gnesin, along with Smit and Reynaldo Hahn, are three Jewish composers whose works are scheduled for the new season.
During a recent interview at a Westside deli, Chouchan said he wasn’t sure how many works programmed for 2014-15 are actually premieres. He figures at least eight have not been performed either in Los Angeles or in the United States, his new home. Chouchan, 53, became an American citizen last year.
“For me, it’s a mystery,” Chouchan said. “The scores by these composers are so well crafted. Why should we put them in a drawer and not perform them? It’s bizarre.”
Julius Reder Carlson, Le Salon’s resident musicologist, said the series re-creates a chamber music experience closer to what one was like in the 19th and early-20th centuries. “Music performances were usually filled with obscure, often unknown, works of remarkably diverse quality, genre and style,” he said.
Chouchan often does painstaking detective work to find these overlooked, suppressed or forgotten scores. And sometimes he has help. One of the social charms of Le Salon is that audience members feel free to mingle with musicians (the champagne helps). In one case, Chouchan said, a Russian patron of the series helped him locate the music to Gnesin’s “Songs of a Knight Errant,” as well as for his Piano Quintet, Op. 11, scheduled on the June 2015 program.
Gnesin, the son of a rabbi and a pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, composed during the repressive communist period (he died in 1957). “His music is dark, especially compared to Smit’s,” Chouchan said. “It is more cerebral, delicate music, where you can hear the details of each part.”
Another unusual piece is by Dutch composer Leo Smit, who was murdered at age 43 at the Sobibor extermination camp. He is represented by the Sextet for Piano and Winds on Le Salon’s April 19 program.
“Mixing piano and winds is not so usual for chamber music,” Chouchan said. “I wanted to add more wind instruments for this season, so I got the score from Amsterdam. There is not a lot known about Smit, but his music is strangely joyful with beautifully articulated rhythms. I am deeply Jewish, so I want to talk about him, and about Hahn and Gnesin.”
Though Chouchan’s roots are in Russia and Poland, there’s no mistaking the French accent of his series, and Hahn, whose father was Jewish, and whose career was derailed by the Nazis in 1940, is a composer Chouchan thinks should be better represented. A fascinating figure who came of age in France’s creative Belle Époque era, Hahn was also Marcel Proust’s lover. “His music is so sensitive, a mixing of sadness and Romanticism,” Chouchan said.
Two of Hahn’s works on the March 8 program — one for viola and piano, another for violin and piano — feature Los Angeles Philharmonic concertmaster Martin Chalifour and principal violist Carrie Dennis, who join an equally stellar group of musicians.
Rob Brophy, a violist for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and regular guest artist at Le Salon, said one reason for the Salon’s success is how Chouchan surrounded himself early on with like-minded artists.
“His programming ideas were different,” Brophy said. “He partnered well-known pieces with underappreciated or even unknown scores. It’s an interesting idea from our point of view, because mostly no recordings exist of the repertoire he chooses.”
John Walz, principal cellist of Los Angeles Opera and artistic director of Le Salon since 2012, agreed. In the Salon’s third season, Walz performed Nikolai Myaskovsky’s Cello Sonata No. 2 with pianist Steven Vanhauwaert. Their Le Salon rendition has since been seen by more than 6, 500 people (and counting) on YouTube.
“That was a high point,” Walz said. “People can go to other series for the contemporary stuff. This is a chance to play gorgeous chamber music from the Classical, Romantic, neo-Romantic and Impressionist eras.
“We’ve done the Myaskovsky a few times since,” Walz added. “I could stick to comfortable stuff at this point in my career, but it’s exciting to be learning new scores.”
For Chouchan, Le Salon’s success came as a pleasant surprise. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this in France,” he said. “You arrive here in America, and you are given a chance. I need diversity, and love historical things — to research and make discoveries.”
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