December 10, 2018

Pianist puts lesser-known music front and center stage

If ever a music series represented one person’s vision, it’s Le Salon de Musiques, founded by French-American pianist Francois Chouchan in 2010. 

The chamber music series — which meets the first Sunday of every month at 4 p.m. in the light-filled, living room-like fifth floor of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion — conjures a remembrance of things past, featuring underperformed or forgotten works by lesser-known 19th- and early 20th-century composers.

Le Salon’s seventh season-opening concert Oct. 2, for example, offers the U.S. premiere of Guillaume Lekeu’s “Molto Adagio for String Quartet.” The Belgian composer, who died at age 24 in 1894 after contracting typhoid fever from a contaminated sorbet, was a student of César Franck. Chouchan, confident of the work’s value, has programmed it between Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major (Op. 59, No. 3) and one of the glories of chamber music, Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major (D. 956), a unique score in its day for employing a second cello, rather than an additional viola, with the traditional string quartet. 

There is no stage at Le Salon. The informal concerts begin with an entertaining and insightful introduction by musicologist Kristi Brown-Montesano, who introduces veterans of the Southern California music scene, such as John Walz, principal cello of Los Angeles Opera, and Robert deMaine, principal cello of the L.A. Philharmonic (they will perform in the Schubert Quintet). 

Le Salon also features rising stars, such as violinist William Hagen, baritone David Castillo and sopranos So Young Park and Summer Hassan. 

After the concert, listeners take part in what Chouchan calls “la conversation.” French Champagne is served while the audience asks the musicians questions. The conversation continues at nearby tables over more Champagne, a gourmet high tea buffet and dessert.

“Many people have made friends and new connections at Le Salon,” Chouchan said recently at a West Hollywood eatery, aptly named La Conversation cafe. “This is how chamber music should always be performed, because beyond the music, we have this intimacy and ability to share emotions. This is what Schubert was doing.”

In early 19th-century Vienna, Schubert’s music received first hearings at what became known as Schubertiads, informal gatherings where the composer himself sometimes performed and accompanied singers. 

Though Chouchan doesn’t offer new music, he proves that something old can become new. By unearthing forgotten or unknown works, he challenges listeners to question the Western canon. 

Other composers who will be given a hearing by Le Salon’s first-rate performers this season include German-Dutch composer Julius Röntgen (1855-1932) on the March 5 program and English composer Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) on May 7. The latter program also offers two rarely performed scores by Amy Beach (1867-1944): her Piano Quintet in F sharp minor (Op. 67) and a selection of her songs, popular in their day, sung by soprano Elissa Johnston.

“These composers live again through their art,” Chouchan said. “As performers, we are agents of transmission, allowing people to discover or rediscover these beauties. I try each time to program pieces with a strong connection. In mood and spirit, Lekeu’s ‘Adagio’ is connected to Schubert. I try to mix genres, programming scores for a baritone or soprano between instrumental works, because the voice is also an instrument.”

According to Brown-Montesano, Chouchan sees Schubert’s vocal music as essentially chamber music. “So much of Schubert’s instrumental music is influenced by his vocal writing,” Brown-Montesano said. “Francois loves accompanying these veteran musicians and young professionals. He loves sung poetry. Sometimes it’s like he’s channeling the composer, enjoying that closeness with Schubert, the accompanist.”

Chouchan said he likes the idea of making classical music more welcoming to beginning concertgoers. “Fewer young people are attending classical music concerts because they’re scared of the formal concert settings,” he said. “Classical music is not reserved for an elitist class.”

Brown-Montesano, who is chair of music history and literature at the Colburn Conservatory, agreed. “There’s not a huge difference between subscribers and people coming to the salon for the first time,” she said. “Everyone feels invested — the scholar, performing artists and listeners speak to each other in a natural way.”

The salon setting also offers listeners a rare chance to get inside the music. “A small space allows you to feel the instruments’ vibrations,” Chouchan said. “We breathe together and see how the performers breathe together. If you’re too far way, you miss half the beauty of the music. The breathing and the silences are part of the scores.”

For Chouchan, Le Salon has taken on a deeper meaning since the murder of his beloved friend, the Tunisian-born French psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Elsa Cayat, a columnist for the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. She was killed Jan. 7, 2015, reportedly the only woman singled out by the terrorists, because, as one threat put it, she was a “dirty Jew.” 

Chouchan, 55, who is also Jewish, is dedicating this season of Le Salon to Cayat (1960-2015), who helped him survive a life-threatening illness four years ago. In November, Cayat’s parents, sister and daughter are scheduled to attend a special all-Schubert concert Chouchan is giving in Paris in her memory. 

“Elsa loved Schubert,” Chouchan said. “I’m alive today because of Elsa. She’s with me every day. I cannot explain it. Step by step, we forget how important human connection is. Of course, Le Salon is about the music, but it’s also a question of humanity. When I see a beautiful person like Elsa killed, we need to do everything possible to preserve those values.”

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