It was a recent splendid Sunday afternoon, and computer programmer Mark Bitter was having his big debut with an ensemble of chamber musicians at a very special concert.
Was he anxious?
"I'm not terribly nervous," said the 30-year-old amateur clarinetist, who was about to perform with pianist Priscilla Pawlicki and soprano Carole Baldwin. "But there are things that can go wrong."
"I have a little post-nasal drip," he said.
An Old Tradition
Bitter, a computer programmer, wasn't the only amateur musician at the elegant Pacific Palisades home of Harriet Kimble Wyre that afternoon. There were also doctors, scientists, teachers and psychologists. All come for the pleasure of making and listening to chamber music, and are members of the Da Camera Society, a 900-member, Los Angeles-based organization that takes its name from the 17th-Century Italian term for musica da camera , or chamber music.
The idea of staging concerts in private homes may sound new, but it's based on a centuries-old European tradition, when small groups of musicians performed in the great houses of the aristocracy.
Which is precisely what MaryAnn Bonino--a musicologist at Mount St. Mary's College in Brentwood--had in mind when she founded the Da Camera Society in 1973. "I was really continuing something I saw as a longstanding tradition," she said. "Chamber music really belongs in this kind of environment. It's putting it back in someone's camera, and attaching to it all the social amenities that have always been a part of chamber music."
For members, those amenities include the opportunity to perform with other musicians, meet new colleagues, and to enjoy music in a decidedly rarefied, intimate setting.
"It's the way music was meant to be listened to," said Mary Calfas, a Santa Monica elementary school teacher, who was chatting in the dining room with her friend Kathleen Leonard. "You get to mix and talk with people."
Added Leonard, an interior designer who joined the Da Camera Society three years ago: "I love the music, I love the architecture, and I also love to cook. It's also a nice place to bring friends."
Leonard studied piano as a child, she said, "but it didn't take. My teacher made me put my gum on the side of the piano bench, and that was it."
Some at the Sunday concert had only recently begun playing again after quitting for several years. Marty Balser, for instance, a bespectacled physicist, began devoting himself "seriously" to the cello about three years ago.
"It's the most exciting, satisfying thing you can do," he said. "I get more satisfaction out of this than I do out of my professional life, and my professional life is very satisfying."
Said Mark Bitter, who picked up the clarinet five years ago after he finally got settled in his computer programming job: "I do a lot of analysis and scientific thinking, and it's really important to me to balance it out."
The concerts also attract a fair number of practicing musicians like Priscilla Pawlicki, a 40-year-old pianist with a graduate degree in historical musicology from UCLA and a teacher at UCLA Extension. "One of the nice things about chamber music is that you're sharing that experience," she said. "I spend a lot of hours alone in my practice room."
Carole Baldwin, a professional singer with a degree in voice performance from the University of Oregon, sings period music from medieval to baroque, and has a repertoire in nine languages.
"I can meet a lot of musicians who play different instruments here," she said. "So if I become interested in some kind of music that takes a soprano and seven cellos, where else could I find seven cellos? It's just an excellent way to meet other musicians and try out new music."
As a matter a fact, that's how she met Mark Bitter. "He heard me sing at one of the home concerts, and came up to me afterward and asked, 'Have you ever heard of "Shepherd on the Rock?" ' Clarinetists just love to do 'Shepherd on the Rock' with a singer."
But organizing all these musicians does take some work. The concerts open with a 30-minute prepared performance by an ensemble of members, then the musicians on hand form their own groups, then repair to available rooms for sight-reading sessions.
As Bonino recalled: "In the early years of the Da Camera Society, I was trying to play yenta to a certain extent. I had a card on every single member, what instrument they played and what kind of music they liked, and I would spread them all out on the living room floor."
And "like a dating service," she added, "the combinations didn't always work."
Beverly Gladstone, a graphic artist who plays the baroque violin and recorder, took over as director in late 1984.
"People started complaining," she recalled in a phone interview. " 'Why doesn't somebody organize this?' People would bring a can of bean dip. It was not the image we wanted to project."
The Hardest Part